from Amy Sacka’s project Lost & Found in Detroit,  which comprises 5000 photographs of that city taken in 500 days

from Amy Sacka’s project Lost & Found in Detroit, which comprises 5000 photographs of that city taken in 500 days

EDITOR’S NOTE

Readers:

 

May: As promised I am happy to report our own wave good-bye to Phillip Levine in Plume: the “secret poem” Phil’s “Belief,” with a marvelous introduction by Christopher Buckley in this month’s Newsletter.  For this reason,  I strongly urge you to subscribe to that short monthly report. Unsubscribe if you like immediately thereafter – it’s a matter of a mouse-click.

Also this, something new in Plume’s series of Featured Selections: no poems this time (well, a few), but rather – what to call them? — “remembrances” of work of the non-poetry type, as befits Phil’s long-standing interest in that subject.. For example, here we attend the somewhat harrowing story of Jane Hirschfield’s job as a trucker; watch as D. Nurkse, in Iceland, drops 50 kilo bag of Portland cement within a foot of the foreman, from three flights up; accompany Ron Slate, working at Ziljian Cymbal factory in Quincy, Massachusetts, as he meets his boyhood idol Buddy Rich; ruminate with Afaa Weaver on the origins and implications of writing about work or the “working class.”

 

What else?

 

Many thanks to Nin Andrews for her wonderful “orgasm” poems in last issue’s Featured Selection, with that lively – it seem like two old friends kibitzing at a dizzyingly high level, didn’t it? – introductory interview conducted by Nancy Mitchell. Instead of the usual promissory list of upcoming Features, let me just add that we have some very exciting ones in the offing – some “portfolios” of work, some just-got-our-hands-on rarities. Watch this space.

 

And, this, filed under “bears repeating”: We’ve made a small change to the anthology, moving from the year designation to simply a number, in the upcoming case “3”. Something, I am told, to do with the advantages of securing an SPD number. And, I can tell, immodestly, it is going to be…something: living up to our Mission Statement’s (so audacious in its pre-first issue conception!) promise to publish “the best work by the best poets working today, nationally and internationally.” E.g. Shamsad Abdulloev, translated by Alex Cigale; Kim Addonizio; Kelli Russell Adagon; Sandra Alcosser; Meena Alexander; Kazim Ali; Kelle Groom; Ralph Angel; Rae Armantrout…and, obviously, that’s just the A’s. Copies will be available at AWP and thereafter through Madhat/Evolution Arts, Amazon, etc.

plume v3 front dark blue style 2 (1)

 

Our cover art this month is from Amy Sacka, a Detroit-based street photographer whose ongoing project, “500 Days in Detroit” captures the nuances of a city that is often view with a narrow lens. Her work has been featured in National GeographicThe Guardian, The Detroit News and most recently on PBS World News Hour.

 

Finally, New Work Received this month includes pieces from Jim Daniels, Irene Maslinski, John Skoyles, Daniel Bosch, Timothy Liu, Stuart Friebert, Harriet Levin, Annie Finch, Bruce Bond, Cathleen Calbert, Denise Duhamel, Maureen Seaton, Tara Skurtu, Sophia Galifianakis, Wendy Barker, and others.

 

As always, I do hope you enjoy the issue!

 

Daniel Lawless

Editor, PLUME

OÚ EST LE CHAT

Cathleen Calbert

Où est le chat

I can ask this, which is good

in case I need to find a cat

in France. Otherwise,

 

peut-être other questions:

Quelle heure est-il? Qu’est-ce que c’est?

Except I won’t understand the answers.

 

If I ask Où est le chat,

a Parisian would need

to point and perhaps growl at me.

 

What else might I try?

Pardon, monsieur, how does one

find le metro or l’autobus?

 

Meaning in a meaningless universe?

Why am I in Paris without my husband?

Mon mari. Sick soulmate of mine.

 

I shall trod upon the cobblestone streets

of my imagination avec ma soeur, a negative

of me, so said mon ami, though I am

 

the black version, I believe, of a long-gone

mother’s womb-fruit: sad-eyed shadow-poet

to my sibling’s bright Capitalism. No one

 

on this bus is interesting. N’est-ce pas?

They work for insurance companies and read

a hundred shades of gray or something equally dumb.

 

But they’re nice as Nice. Friendly and lumpy,

as I like my Americans. I’m the one

with the slow tongue and black leather jacket.

 

Où est le chat? It may come up, after all.

A café, sleeping pup, handsome man.

Who knows? Hey, Henri, où est . . .

 

Except life doesn’t work that way.

Je ne comprends pas. Je suis perdu.

Je suis désolé. Merci beaucoup

 

for these small (or large) confusions

as well as one last sweet chance

to run away with my lighter sister

 

and an oddly disappearing kitty.

I shall call her “the Cat of Mystery.”

This will only add to my happiness.


 

Cathleen Calbert’s poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction have appeared in many publications, including The New Republic, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Poetry, and The Women’s Review of Books. She is the author of three books of poetry: Lessons in Space (University of Florida Press), Bad Judgment (Sarabande Books), and Sleeping with a Famous Poet (C.W. Books). Her awards include The Nation Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Tucker Thorp Professorship at Rhode Island College, where she currently teaches.

SELF PORTRAIT IN THE BACKYARD AS MOTHER

Nicole Cooley

Self Portrait in the Backyard as Mother

Tulip-bellied, fists full of weeds, the baby shuffles over the wet grass,
the baby stumbles like a drunk
toward me, the baby wants to roll on top of me,
climb back inside my body but what about
the times I want her gone, want my body to myself,
want only to believe in my own useless wanting?

 

Self-Portrait Composed of Lines from Marina Tsvetaeva’s Notebook Entry 1940

To the dacha, meeting with S who is sick.
Gradually pain in my heart.
I live without documents
My loneliness. Dishwasher and tears.
The overtone—the overtone of everything—is terror.
A hundred times a day to the cellar.
When can I write/?
I am afraid of everything. Eyes. darkness, footsteps. and most of all—of myself…

For a year I have been trying on death.

(from The Death of a Poet: The Last Days of Marina Tsvetaeva. Irma Kudrova)

 

Self-Portrait as Playroom Toy Box

Star face of a pinwheel snapped off.

Shrinky Dinks melting into moon bowls in the oven.

Marbles jumbled in a box like baby teeth—the ache of it, a mouth filled with glass?

I’m not talking about dolls or a doll face or a head taken from a body.

Or the outgrown. Or the never-grown. Or the never.

The ache of it?

The pinwheel’s five points. The bowl made of skin.

Sew me up. Shut me up. Stitch me together with loose, looped yarn

so I can hold them tight.


 

Nicole Cooley’s fourth book of poems, Milk Dress, was co-winner of the Kinereth Gensler Award. Other awards include The Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets for her first book, Resurrection, a Discovery/The NationAward, and the Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America. She is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Queens College-City University of New York where she directs the new MFA program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation.

THE SECRET OF TIME MEETS A STRANGER

Elaine Equi

THE SECRET OF TIME MEETS A STRANGER

You look familiar.
Were you once my mother?

My child that slept through the Ice Age?

That song you were whistling—
where did you learn it?

Time passes, but the past will not stay behind,
and the future keeps rushing back
in search of a button it lost in the mist.

Who can say if it is better to wind up a clock
than to wind up a mammal?

In Newton’s day, time was seen as an arrow.

The arrow turned into a river.

The river stopped at a diner.

I’m there now, drinking a cup of coffee, writing a poem
called “The Secret of Time Meets a Stranger.”

Somehow, I always knew you would come.


 

Elaine Equi’s books include Ripple Effect: New & Selected Poems, and most recently, Click and Clone, both from Coffee House Press. A new collection, Sentences and Rain, is forthcoming in fall 2015. She lives in New York City and teaches at New York University and in the MFA program at The New School.

ON EVERY HAND A GREAT PLAIN

Henry Israeli

ON EVERY HAND A GREAT PLAIN

 

Two bears tearing at a tent

shred it to strips with their razor claws,

the whites around their big brown eyes

glistening yellow in the early light.

After they effortlessly crack apart the tent’s skeleton

they sit themselves down on the ground like fat generals

to survey the domain of their glorious wreckage.

When a hunter takes out the first one

the other seems surprised—but just a little,

the way at a party a man is surprised to hear his name

called out by a face that seems too old to know him

before realizing he once dated her in high school.

The living bear ambles over to the dead bear.

It looks confused, sniffs the thick red paste,

before the second shot

and the terrible pain that comes from everywhere at once

and then the ground so close to its eyes

and the taste of sugar, something never tasted before this day,

still lingering on its tongue.


 

Henry Israeli is the author of New Messiahs (Four Way Books, 2002). His poetry and translations have appeared in many journals including Grand Street, The Iowa Review, and Verse.

TWO POEMS

Affonso Romano de Sant'Anna

GETTING READY THE HOUSE

My friend goes to visit his grave
like someone going
to his country house to plant roses.

Some time ago
he acquired this little homestead.
Planted trees around it,
and occasionally he’ll go there
as if alive
he could do what he would do only if he were dead.

From time to time he’ll see
his death beginning to blossom.
He’ll look around, think, straighten something or other out,
then back to the business of life:
making love, eating, inventing projects,
having already left his death
in the place it deserves.

Translated by Lloyd Schwartz

 

PREPARANDO A CASA

Meu amigo visita sua cova
como quem vai
à casa de campo plantar rosas.

Há algum tempo
comprou sua casa de terra.
Plantou árvores ao redor
e de quando em quando vai lá
como se vivo
pudesse fazer o que só morto fará.

De vez em quando vai ver
como seu morte floresce.
Olha, pensa, ajeita uma coisa e outra
depois volta à agitação da vida:
ama, come, faz projetos,
pois ja botou a sua morte
no lugar ela merece.

 

THEY ARE MOVING ALONG

They are moving along, my friends.
I know death is useful in others,
those who put our lives into perspective.
But they are racing, rushing,
leaving their children, their work, their love incomplete,
and revolutions to finish.

This wasn’t part of the bargain.

Some leave heroically.
Others in peace. Some rebel.
It’s best to leave full.

What am I supposed to do? Even now
there’s someone trying to accelerate his own denouement.
I’m not in such a hurry. Death
demands work, work
as slow as being born.

Translated by Lloyd Schwartz

 

ELES ESTÃO SE ADIANTANDO

Eles estão se adiantando, os meus amigos.
Sei que é útil a morte alheia
para quem constrói o seu fim.

Mas eles estao indo, apressados,
deixando filhos, obras, amores inacabados,
e revoluçöes por terminar.

Não era isto o combinado.

Alguns se despedem heróicos,
outros serenos. Alguns se rebelam.
O bom seria partir pleno.

O que faço? Ainda agora
um apressou seu desenlace.
Sigo sem pressa. A morte
exige trabalho, trabalho lento
como quem nasce.


 

Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna (b. 1937, Belo Horizonte) is one of the leading literary figures in Brazil. Poet, critic, journalist, teacher, he’s the author of some forty volumes of poems, essays, and chronicles. He has been president of the National Library Foundation in Brazil, a visiting writer at the University of Iowa, and visiting professor of Brazilian Literature at UCLA and the University of Texas at El Paso.


 

Lloyd Schwartz is the Frederick S. Troy Professor of English and teaches in the MFA Program at UMass Boston. The author of three books of poetry and a chapbook, his poems have been selected for The Pushcart Prize, The Best American Poetry, and The Best of the Best American Poetry. His publications include the Library of America edition of Elizabeth Bishop, the centennial edition of Bishop’s Prose (FSG), and Music In—and On—the Air, a collection of his music reviews for NPR’s Fresh Air. He was awarded the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

FREE VERSE

Donald Revell

FREE VERSE

 

Small woods upon an incline

Thewed of the levin, lean

Down there exactly trodden

Where leaves become a hillside torrent

To a broken man a small dog

In the crook of his arm. Imagine

He carries a windmill

In a walnut shell, imagine

Across the bivouacs of Labrador

One Samuel loves one hotter

A virgin to the last of men

All onto the shining grass, eagles,

Onto the fallen leaves a Prophet,

The glory and misfortune of angels here.


 

Donald Revell is the author of twelve previous collections of poetry, most recently of Tantivy (2012) and The Bitter Withy (2009), both from Alice James Books. Revell has published six volumes of translations from the French, including Apollinaire’s Alcools (Wesleyan), Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell (Omnidawn), Laforgue’s Last Verses (Omnidawn) and Verlaine’s Songs without Words (Omnidawn). His critical writings have been collected as The Art of Attention (Graywolf) and Invisible Green: Selected Prose (Omnidawn). Winner of the PEN USA Translation Award and two-time winner of the PEN USA Award for Poetry, he has also won the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Prize and is a former Fellow of the Ingram Merrill and Guggenheim Foundations. He now serves as poetry editor of Colorado Review and is Director of Graduate Studies & Professor of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

WORDS IN THE WOODS

Alberto Rios

Words in the Woods

 

All the words that have been spoken here
Over time, over centuries: they stay.

We hear occasional echoes, think
A bird has chirped or a cricket,

But it was a moment of laughter
Happy enough to be here still

Even as the years themselves are gone.
A glint in someone’s eye, a quality of light—

Something, something made one say words
To another, and they laughed.

Words spoken have some slight weight:
As they go forward from the mouth, they fall

In a slow arc over time. But they do not go—
In falling they are in the humus that feeds the trees,

And in their time they enter the trees
And are the trees, so that the limbs

And the leaves of these trees, this shade
Is that conversation, so pleasant, so long ago.


 

Alberto Álvaro Ríos is the author of eleven books and chapbooks of poetry, three collections of short stories, and a memoir.  His books of poems include, most recently, A Small Story About the Sky.  Ríos is the recipient of the Western Literature Association Distinguished Achievement Award, the Arizona Governor’s Arts Award, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Walt Whitman Award, the Western States Book Award for Fiction, six Pushcart Prizes in both poetry and fiction, and inclusion in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, as well as over 250 other national and international literary anthologies.  His work is regularly taught and translated, and has been adapted to dance and both classical and popular music.

GHAZAL 4

Deema K. Shehabi

GHAZAL 4

How sullen we’ve become in the belly of the empire;
nobody wrestles time for afternoon tea and honey in the empire.

What trumpets behind the fence? Orange-bellied birds in magnolia
blossoms, skittery squirrels, it’s spring in the sunny empire.

On MLK day, the children pack tuna sandwiches and apples
for the tent-city homeless who are going hungry in the empire.

Foggy morning in Oakland, the scent of deep-fish frying, and the newspaper says:
Koreans fly home to avoid expensive dentistry in the empire.

Body scanners, fingerprints, cameras on street corners—
airports have become dangerous places for Sunnis in the empire.

Friends pat me on the back, enjoy what you have;
distances between people have nothing to do with money in the empire.

Once, we rushed to the North End for succulent Italian.
Now, even the Irish neighborhoods serve up minestrone in the empire.

Who’d clip a foreign tongue and chop off a last name? Acculturation means men
with erased accents listen with vigor to Limbaugh’s litany in the empire.

She hears May Nasr’s song to Gaza, reads Hacker’s translations
of Venus Khoury Ghata and deposes a desire to give it up totally in the empire.

 


 

Deema K. Shehabi is poet, writer, and editor. She is the author of Thirteen Departures from the Moon, and is co-editor with Beau Beausoleil of Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here. Her work has appeared widely in various anthologies and literary journals. Her most recent publication is a collaboration with Marilyn Hacker titled  Diaspo/Renga: a collaboration in alternating renga. Her work has been translated into Arabic, Farsi, and French.

ARCHIMEDES

Alan Shapiro

Archimedes

 

Bent over the plate, she studies

the tremor in the hand that

holds the fork that

lifts the food that,

when it’s lifted, trembling,

spills back to the plate.

 

Head down, puzzling it out,

she doesn’t see

and while she doesn’t

maybe isn’t there

in the lunch room hearing

the linoleum echo

of the half words and

disconnected phrases

others at the table

say to no one

in response to nothing.

 

She could be pondering how wide

the gulf is between

tine and tongue, and cup and lip,

or why it is the hand won’t

hear her, won’t listen, is it

deaf, or stubborn,

a stubborn brat holding its breath

and shaking till it gets its way

though it won’t tell her

what its way is,

what it wants from her.

And as she stares it down

as if by staring she might

shame it into being hers again,

or untangle the knotted

up enigma

of how the present had been

always only present

even while it carried her

from house to cottage to

apartment to

this linoleum-echo

of disconnection

in a lunch room

of strangers in a home

that isn’t

with a hand that won’t

stop shaking from the fork

whatever food is

being lifted to her mouth.

 


 

Alan Shapiro is the author of 12 books of poetry (including Night of the Republic, a finalist for both the National Book Award and The Griffin Prize), two memoirs (The Last Happy Occasion, which was a finalist for the National Book Circle Critics Award in autobiography, and Vigil), a novel (Broadway Baby), a book of critical essays (In Praise of the Impure: Poetry and the Ethical Imagination) and two translations (The Oresteia by Aeschylus and The Trojan Women by Euripides, both published by Oxford University Press). Shapiro has won numerous awards, including The Kingsley Tufts Award, LA Times Book Prize, The O.B. Hardison Award from the Folger Shakespeare Library, and The William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. His new book of poems, Reel to Reel, was published in April 2014, from University of Chicago Press.

NIGHT SPIDER

Will Stone

NIGHT SPIDER

All day he waited, then
when the sun’s speech ended
he dangled out, swung like a drunk
still attached by one claw
to the tavern door.
All night he had endured the rain.
To him distant thunder is a feeling,
the welling of a tiny drop
of his own black blood, the wind
a chance to tense, to quiver, then fail
like a lonely face at a window
refused by the laughter inside.
With his swag he returns to the hole,
and the darkness reforms him.
He remains unseen and unknown
poised, alert, without knowing why,
eyeing life’s brilliant white bone.

 


 

Will Stone is a poet, essayist and literary translator who divides his time between Suffolk, North Devon and the European outlands. His first poetry collection Glaciation (Salt, 2007), won the international Glen Dimplex Award for poetry in 2008. A second collection Drawing in Ash, was published by Salt in May 2011. His next collection The Sleepwalkers will appear in 2015/16. His translated works include To the Silenced – Selected Poems of Georg Trakl Arc, (2005) and more recently a series of books for Hesperus Press, with translations of works by Maurice Betz, Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth and Rainer Maria Rilke. Arc will publish his two collections of translated poetry by Belgian symbolist poets Emile Verhaeren and Georges Rodenbach in 2015. Further translations of essays by Stefan Zweig will appear from Pushkin Press in 2015/16 and a Collected Poems of Georg Trakl will be published by Seagull Books in 2016.

LOOKING FOR ZAGAJEWSKI UNDER THE COUCH

Tim Suermondt

LOOKING FOR ZAGAJEWSKI UNDER THE COUCH

If his book of poems isn’t there
it may be lost forever
and the household will be diminished—
a bit like the neighborhood itself.
The sun will shine less,
the wind will blow harder
and there’ll be fewer cherry blossoms
on the trees this Spring, flaunting
themselves in the Japanese Garden.

 


 

Tim Suermondt is the author of two full-length collections: TRYING TO HELP THE ELEPHANT MAN DANCE ( The Backwaters Press, 2007 ) and JUST BEAUTIFUL from New York Quarterly Books, 2010. He has published poems in Poetry, The Georgia Review, Blackbird, Able Muse, Prairie Schooner, PANK, Bellevue Literary Review and Stand Magazine (U.K.) and has poems forthcoming in Gargoyle, A Narrow Fellow and Cha: an Asian literary Journal among others. After many years in Queens and Brooklyn, he has moved to Cambridge with his wife, the poet Pui Ying Wong.

THE LEAVES HAVE NO PITY

Diane Wakoski

The Leaves Have No Pity           

gathering under the porch like abandoned promises,
fallen through the wooden
slats, like the key
that is now lost among them. The
leaves have no response to
the vulnerable hand,
the fingers through which the key slipped
on its rusty wire.
She was once young
when they kept the key hidden
under a rock near the sill of the door
and entered the old house,
now used as a summer cabin. If she could have
seen the bottom of the lake,
there she would have
seen numerous other keys
fallen down into silt, and though
she fished and poked to find
her key under the porch, in several autumns’ worth of leaves,
she would never be able to use it
even if found. It was simply the old duplicate
key, once slipped off the rusty wire.
Yet, she had
to set it right, the careless loss. For if she did
perhaps other careless losses
would not seem so great.


 

Diane Wakoski, born in Southern California, graduate of UC, Berkeley, began her poetry career in New York City (1960-1973).  Her selected poems, EMERALD ICE (Black Sparrow) won the William Carlos Williams prize (1989, PSA).  BAY OF ANGELS (Anhinga Press, 2014) is her newest collection.  She has retired as University Distinguished Professor, from Michigan State University after 37 years, and lives with her husband the photographer, Robert Turney, in East Lansing, Mi

FEATURED SELECTION

This month’s Featured Selection requires only the slightest introduction. A few weeks ago, a thought occurred to me, regarding how, one last time, to wave good-bye to the great Philip Levine, the so-called “Poet of Work.” (For more on that moniker, please see Christopher Buckley’s wonderful essay introducing Phillip’s poem “Belief” in this Issue’s Editor’s Note; you won’t be disappointed.)

 

So I emailed some Plume contributors. My query was brief; essentially —

 

I’d like you to write a few lines —  50-75  words or so, longer if you like, about a job you have held — your first, your last, best, worst, weirdest, most stultifying,  most illuminating — whatever it might be. Identify the job and say whatever you’d like to say about it.

I was stunned and gratified by the almost immediate little flood of responses – infinitely more out of love and respect for the poet than for me, naturally. And, needless to say, almost every responder blew right past that suggested 50-75 words — poets! What was I thinking?

 

Without further comment, then, but with my profound gratitude, I present in no particular order our poets’ adieux to Phillip Levine by way of a series of work-remembrances. Enjoy – I think Phil would or will if he could or can.

 

 

Kathleen Flenniken

I remember (from my old life as a civil engineer) investigating the environmental history of an urban section of the Duwamish River. My task took me to an old hangar where I pored over aerial photos from the 20s, 30s, 40s, using stereoscopic glasses. Suddenly I was God looking down at the long-ago farmers with their dogs, workmen in the field, the woman feeding chickens, and the shadows they cast. I still think of them.

 

Jane Hirshfield

My most unexpected job: driving a Ford cab-over double-trailer flatbed lumber truck on a learner’s permit, with a partner who’d gone to three day truck driving school for his own license a few months before. We did this for maybe seven months. There’s even a Phil Levine connection of sorts: we were living in Fresno at the time, when we weren’t on the road, and the truck was based out of Madera, just north. I never had the courage to go visit Phil on campus, but one of his former students–he’d just selected her first book fo inaugurate the National Poetry Series–was a friend of my then-sweetheart’s, and she, Roberta Spear, looked at the poems I was writing and said, yes, yes, I might think about carrying on with this, from what she saw on the page. That bit of early encouragement went a long way for someone who’d stepped away from that world. Meanwhile, though, I was driving Highway 99 in the dark, waking Ted up from the sleeper when we were about to reach Arbuckle, where the road makes its only S-curve and down dip for hundreds of miles. That required a downshift, and if I missed getting the rpms just right I needed him to muscle the truck into gear. I’m sure I shortened that truck engine’s longevity some good amount, and Gary Snyder–another of America’s great poets of work life–had already written his great poem about driving a logging truck, so really, all I was doing was learning to drive some cut lumber up and down the state, from San Diego to the Oregon border, Pleasanton to Nevada. I once, empty, passed a Greyhound bus going up Donner Pass–the bus driver saw me behind the wheel and did a double take. No reason for him to know that I’d never have driven the truck down that steep curving road at its full 80,000 lb weight, or that however many times I tried to throw the rolled bands (called wrappers) that secure the load over the top to the other side, where they’d then be winched tight, I never could.

 

John Kinsella

My earliest work days: I started work at Whim Smitt Philatelists in Perth during school holidays and on Saturday mornings when I was thirteen . Then high schooling in the country in Geraldton, I worked for a couple of years on weekends and holidays at an assay laboratory and supervising samples as ships were being loaded in the harbour. Later, I looked after my uncle’s and auntie’s farm, Wheatlands, while they traveled in Europe. I then worked the ‘season’ (twice) on the wheatbins.

 

David Huddle

My first days in the army were pretty much what I thought they’d be.  A fast and merciless haircut.  Uniforms handed out in a warehouse assembly line–pants at one stop, hats another, military blouses another, fatigue jacket another, boots another, underwear, socks, etc.  The supply sergeants and enlisted men jokey but serious, too. A great deal of instructions having to do with body behavior.  How to march and keep in step.  How to salute.  How–exactly how–to stand at attention and at ease.  Present arms, etc.  Our Training Sergeants were unfriendly, demanding, insulting in both humorous and intimidating ways.  Mostly they were grizzled white lifers, but there were also a few grizzled Mexican and black lifers.  Very quickly we learned that the Training Sergeants were not–and never would be–our friends and that our only choice was to do exactly what they said.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a relationship with anyone like the one I had with Sergeant Martinez and Sergeant Wilson.  As far as I could tell, they were not smart or thoughtful men, and my impression was that they spent their free time drinking and carousing with other NCOs.  But I admired them.  I probably wouldn’t have admired them in any other circumstances than basic training.  And I still appreciate the way they changed me from a pretentious, self-indulgent frat boy into a pretty good soldier.

 

Ron Slate

I received my first paycheck at age 14 as a part-timer at the Ziljian Cymbal factory in Quincy, Massachusetts.  I did whatever the foreman asked, mainly clean up for a few hours now and then.  Armand Ziljian hired me as a favor to my father who believed I would benefit from the discipline of doing what others tell you to do for meager compensation.  But my motives were different.  In 16th-century Constantinople, Avedis Ziljian discovered a copper alloy while trying to create gold from base metals.  Since then every drummer has coveted his cymbals. I had been taking drum lessons since age 11, and simply wanted to feel connected to the famous instruments, and perhaps to obtain a set of Ziljians at a steep discount.

 

One day, while I was perched on a 14-foot ladder cleaning light fixtures, my boyhood idol, Buddy Rich, came to tour the fabrication room with Armand.  I climbed down a few steps to shake his hand.  “Traps the Drum Wonder” never took lessons, a child star at age 11 earning $1000 a week in 1928.  Still bringing it with his own big band in ‘64.  Black belt in karate.  I looked down at Buddy’s big teeth and he looked up at me, one of those rare moments that changes brain chemistry.  I can’t account for the expansion of spirit that spread through me.  I could see all the parts and people on the floor as a unified whole and Buddy’s big teeth radiated power in the middle of it.  I sensed the presence of a vibrant organizing principle.  Not gold but an alloy I could use in startling ways. This was my essential boyhood dream of becoming an artist.

 

Joseph Conrad’s narrator in Heart of Darkness says, “I don’t like work – no man does – but I like what is in the work – the chance to find yourself.  Your own reality – for yourself, not others – what no other man can ever know.  They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.” My father was pleased with my commitment to the job.  On my last day there, Armand Ziljian gave me a set of crash, ride and high-hat cymbals.  I still play them.

 

Thomas Lux

The best job I ever had was for about six months over the fall and winter of 1970-71. I was a night watchman at a small college in the Boston area. Four til midnight shift. I turned on lights, checked locks, had a walkie-talkie. Two free meals: dinner in the dining hall, whatever I wanted later from the kitchen. I had the keys. I could read for about five hours of the eight-hour shift, mostly novels then. On the job, I also read Enid Starkie’s biography of Rimbaud. In the basement of every building the day crew had put old armchairs around the furnace: their place to goldbrick during the day became my place to goldbrick during the night.

 

Timothy Liu

At Breadloaf in 1993, I served as Mark Strand’s teaching assistant. He was flying high, had recently published THE CONTINUOUS LIFE and DARK HARBOR, even told a student “to go fuck herself” during a manuscript conference when she was being obstinate (Mark was never invited back to teach!). When I told him I had worked with Phil Levine a few summers back in New Harmony, Indiana, Mark mused: “Ah yes, Phil Levine, the only American poet who worked for one summer at an auto factory in Detroit and has spent the rest of his life writing about it!” Mark taught me more about self-mythologizing and a healthy rivalry between “brothers in the art” than any job since.

 

Afaa Weaver

Some years ago, I called Phil to ask if he would write for the Guggenheim for me, a goal I have since given up on altogether. I said, “Phil, it’s me, Mike Weaver, the guy who worked in the factory.” He answered, “Oh yeah, you made fifteen years. I only made six or so.” I remember answering him to the effect that I was trying to get out of the factory, and it took longer. His was the greater victory.

 

When the NEA came while I was still a warehouseman, it was my manumission. I had been writing, reading, studying, and working in the factory for fifteen years. When I left and went to Brown, I walked through the ivy gates with an NEA and my first book of poetry published by Charles Rowell of Angle of Ascent fame. At the vertex of that angle I do sit. When I left factory life, I did not want to be pigeonholed as a working class poet, simply or not so simply because I had a justified fear of snobbery in the world of American poetry. I was a smart enough kid. I entered the University of Maryland in College Park in 1968, when I was sixteen years old. So what am I saying?

 

Over the years I wrote from a self-assured base, with books on topics ranging from history and confession to Marc Chagall’s work and the Kabbalah. That has been the outer manifestation of an inner quest, and that quest was shaped along the architecture of my engagement with Chinese culture. I wanted to show what working class consciousness can do, and that was before I read Gramsci.

 

The pigeonholing is the stubborn resistance of privilege against the validation of art created by subalterns, people who are supposed to be incapable of making art, especially high art, and that resistance takes the everyday form of some editorial stances and procedural decisions in the machinery of recognition wherein decisions are made by people who espouse the belief that experience should not exceed craft. Their bias forms this question: “What business does such and such a person have in writing poetry?”

 

My gratitude to Phil is not only for writing for me for tenure and the Guggenheim, but for his faith in the true renaissance in American poetry, when the promise of poets like Whitman, Rukeyser, and Hughes overcome the zero sum aesthetics of privilege. Thus, the attempt to pigeon-hole poets who identify as working class and/or who write about the lives and concerns of workers is about hegemony.

 

Lia Purpura

At the end of high school and in college, I sold coffee from a street cart in NYC, in the shadow of the World Trade Center. While the World Trade Center is no longer there, the shadow  — memory, absences, ruin, unexpected light —  accompanies me. I live in Baltimore now, where there is much work to be done. My city is rolling up sleeves, hauling out buckets of broken glass, marching — lifting the shadow, finding the light. Currently, this is the work I’m signing on for.

 

John Skoyles

I have never forgotten the first time I read the phrase—after a succession of stupid jobs—in Phil Levine’s biographical note, repeated in several of his books. Everyone I know identified with that!

I’ve worked as a short order cook at Colombo’s Luncheonette in Elmhurst, Queens; a messenger for Paramount Pictures on Times Square; a typist for the Associated Press in Rockefeller Center, and as lunchtime supervisor at Iowa City High School, but the oddest job I’ve had was assembling writing pads at the University of Iowa’s storage and supply room.

 

I sat at a table before four towers of 8½ by 11 inch paper: white, pink, blue and yellow, collating each sheet in that order. When my stack reached a certain height, I made sure all sides were even. I placed this pile onto a tall vice, and screwed it down, top and bottom. Next, I lifted a wide brush from a bucket of rubber cement and coated one side with it. While the adhesive dried, I returned to collating. When the rubber set, I unfastened the vice, removed the column of paper and ripped it into manageable sizes for use as pads.

 

Molly Peacock

There are jobs one is good at which one is loath to do.  My excellence lay at supervising study halls at the Friends Seminary School.  Abandoning the teacher’s desk, I visited the restless desk-entrapped teenagers (and the sleepers as well–there are always sleepers in study halls) to ask what they had to do.  I knelt beside each desk as if I were at a prie dieu (hardly something found in a Quaker school) while the kids got out their homework.  Having extorted their attention, I then cajoled, wheedled, flirted, nudged and insisted that they accomplish something.  Exhausting!  My boss thought I was so good at this I should supervise more and more. Maybe I could take on an extra one, or two or three?  Would I would stay in Study Hall after Study Hall,  even as my colleagues flirted (and possibly more) as they ate whole grain sandwiches in the basement Peace and Goodness Faculty Room?

In a Bartleby moment, I refused to do more than my share.  My boss, well, the Quakers would never have said “boss,” accepted this in a blink. And so I learned the power of a simple refusal.  I stayed at the school eleven years and managed to write two books of poetry, some of it in Study Hall.  After I knelt at the students’ desks, I went back to the teacher’s desk to extort my poem’s attention, then cajole, wheedle, flirt, nudge and insist that it materialize.

 

Page Hill Starzinger

My first job was scrubbing toilets at a hotel on Cape Cod. I was 20 and I didn’t see the dignity in it: facing people’s dirty detritus all day, every day. That’s when I realized how difficult real life was. Cleaning the rooms, too, was overwhelming: you feel invisible (something I realize I’ve always struggled with)—you arrive after residents vacate, and before the next are present. Their lives remain unknown to you. You are a stranger. The artist Sophie Calle creates a body of work out of following or investigating random passers-by; she also worked as a maid, exploring presence, absence and penance, confronting her own emotional issues. I’m not sure when I discovered Calle but she was one of the first to inspire me to listen to my own voice.

 

David Baker

There are so many kinds of work and labor, aren’t there?  The work of the heart and the mind and the body.  I vividly remember my first summer of work — 1965, when I was 10.  I started a lawn mowing “business” for people in my neighborhood; I’d walk my rotor push mower and then my gas-engine mower around a 3 block area, in Jefferson City, Missouri, and mowed for $1.50 a yard, except for Goldie, who lived directly across the street and who wanted a down-on-my-knees-with-a-hand-clipper trimming, too.  So she paid $2.00.  I loved mowing and trimming.  And that summer, too, I took my first paying artistic job:  a performing musician.  I walked down the same street to Bob and Elizabeth Crawford’s house, carrying my Gibson Melody Maker guitar (the little bright-red one) and my Silvertone amp, and I plugged it all in there in the Crawford’s front room.  I played “Wildwood Flower,” “Java,” and my crowning achievement, Chet Atkins’ version of “Yakety Sax” (which, for guitar, Chet and I called “Yakety Axe”).  Then I walked back up the hill 15 minutes later with a shiny new Kennedy fifty-cent piece.  I still have that coin.  That was the summer I learned what work is.  Many years later Phil Levine’s poem showed me another way.

 

Nancy Mitchell

With the flex of an uncle’s corporate muscle, I was interviewed by the squat, wiry red-haired, cigarillo-smoking floor manager for the one of the two summer positions in a small appliance factory in job strapped eastern North Carolina. Ignoring my outstretched hand, she lit up, gave me the once over and nodded “plastics.” I giggled, met her eyes conspiratorially, sure she alluded to the famous one liner to young Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. Through a blown smoke steam she shot me the first of many stink-eyes I’d received over the course of the summer, smacked the paper-clipped edge of my application against her metal desk and said “graveyard shift; start tonight.”

 

Sweating, I attended the iron behemoth, heaving, on the minute, its belly full of molten plastic into molds, from which I pulled blender bodies into the fluorescent swamp bile of factory air, fiery threads of alien afterbirth crosshatching burns on my arms.

 

Cradled in thick oven mitts it was passed to the Sander, Buffer, Spit-shiner, and Bubblewrapper, an assembly line of four women who could trace a lineage as straight as the stick up a Daughter of the American Revolution’s behind to the slave shacks of the plantation whose remaining acre lay two miles away.

 

Twice a shift, the machine rested, ticking our fifteen-minute break off like a time bomb, as we poured our shared pouch of peanuts into Pepsi bottles, watching them bloat in the fizz. Between swigs and snuff pinches, they’d parcel “women wisdom” to which I listened, riveted: see fork lifter yonder: sniffed up every skirt… even old skirt and he ain’t looked once at you…know why?…it ain’t that you ugly, ‘cept for that pimple on your chin…his woman done sewed her curly hair to his fly…look at floor supervisor: as if she ain’t old-man ugly enough, she got iron-rust red hair…you think god given? indeed not!…she was ‘got when her mama was on the bleed…don’t laugh…every red-haired chile got on the bleed, although Bible speak against it… I’ll swan-nee you goin’ to college and don’t know nuthin’…that pimple on your chin?…you ain’t letting boyfriend get up in your panties…you ‘fraid once he done get, he done gone?…lean in here, let me tell you…he never leave if you make him up a grilled cheese and tomato soup with a teaspoon of your bleed…don’t look uppity…going off to college with a head stuffed with nuthin’.

Shaking their heads they’d look at me, roll their eyes at each other, and from what I could see, passed not a wink among them.

 

At shift’s end, I’d shake my hair from its tight nylon net and roll down the car windows, drive home through thick strata of morning fog, screech of metal against metal still dinning my ears, the wind whipping the funk of burnt plastic back in my face.

 

Dzvinia Orlowsky

My first day working at Electric Lady Studios in New York City was also my last. I’d lied about knowing how to operate a switchboard. All I really wanted was a chance to meet the musicians; on break, buzz them in the back door. Maybe sit in on a recording session or two – there, right next to the soundboard. That first day, Johnny Winter was scheduled to come in. On my shift. Oh, hey. Yeah. Was gonna rock like my back ain’t got no bone. Was gonna roll like a wagon wheel… Female jacks? Trunk lines? How hard could it be.

 

Jim Daniels

ODE TO THE BLUEGILLS OF METRO DETROIT

 

We caught them because we could, flimsy fish

that wouldn’t fight. Sitting on the shoreline

 

of random concrete chunks, we flashed our pale

factory tans, killing time and beers between shifts.

 

In the still, algaed water of man-made ponds

and shallow inland lakes, in the faint

 

stench of chemical decay, in ancient wooden rowboats

imported from God’s outhouse, with sluggish

 

worms woken from backyard trash,

with plastic rods and Sears sinkers and bobbers,

 

we caught them, yanked out the hook,

threw them back. How they biting today?

 

They always bit. Easy marks, like us,

swallowing the hook.

 

 

Amy Gerstler

Long ago, I got an internship as an aide at a residential treatment center for kids. The kids’ labels ranged from “pre-delinquent,” to autistic, aphasic, and schizophrenic. They were all wards of the state. Some had been abandoned. Others had been arrested, but at that time (back in the 1970s) they were considered too young to jail. The center was a “ranch” in a microscopic rural town. The kids lived in cabins. Foul tempered Shetland ponies grumbled in a corral. Goats grazed in a pasture next door. I had never lived in “the country” before and it took me over an hour to find my way home to my lodging after my first night at work, though I was living a 4-minute walk from the ranch. There were no streetlights, of course, and I’d never seen darkness of that magnitude, and was helpless to navigate in it. The heroic counselors there worked long shifts, and took turns sleeping in the cabins with the kids overnight. It was an amazing, eye-opening, terrifying job, in which I witnessed great courage, generosity, compassion and tragedy. One of my duties was to try to keep a big, strong, mute, 16 year old autistic boy from masturbating in public and from eating banana slugs out of the little stream that ran through the ranch. Being unable to use or understand language, these were his two favorite activities, and I consistently failed, day after day, at dissuading him from avidly pursuing them.

 

D. Nurkse

In Iceland, I worked construction.  I spoke no Icelandic and people mimed: wheelbarrow, jackhammer. Once I lost control and dropped a 50 kilo bag of Portland cement within a foot of the foreman, from three flights up. He thought it was an excellent prank.  At sunset (which lasted all day, we were in winter) everyone quoted the Eddas (or possibly told dirty jokes).  Also memorable: playing the flute for African stilt dancers.

 

Maurice Manning

In junior high school I had a paper route that covered half of my street, up to the bakery downtown, and a street that crossed mine. This was the late 1970s. I had about 60 papers to deliver after school. I delivered the bulkier Sunday paper after it was printed late Saturday night. It happens that a number of my customers were elders. There were the Johnsons, Mrs. Feistretzer whose house was falling down around her, Mrs. Dillon who was always cold and stern, Mrs. Christman whose family had owned all the land around when our town was being settled, and the Allens, who kept chickens in their backyard. Then there was Mrs. Seal, who was nearly blind and asked me to read the paper to her every day. She lived to be 103, which means she was born around 1880. There was also Mrs. Marguerite Sparrow, who had been a school teacher. When I knew her she was living in a one-room apartment. Every day when I delivered her paper she invited me in—including my dog, who always accompanied me on my route. Mrs. Sparrow wanted to talk, often about her childhood growing up in nearby Crab Orchard. I was mesmerized by her tales. She could pin-point the summer heat with a precise phrase and slice through a subtle truth with a judiciously chosen verb. There had been a mineral springs in Crab Orchard when she was a girl and people came from all around to bathe in the waters. A grand hotel had even been there, but it burned in the 1920s and that was pretty much the end. Mrs. Sparrow would have been born in the 1890s, I suppose. Her son, Jack, had been a paratrooper in WWII and was wounded. Occasionally he would visit her—he walked with a brace on his leg. Near the end of my route was the Catholic Church and the old priest often asked me into his residence to discuss the news of the day. One day it occurred to me that delivering papers was hardly my job. My real job was spending time with these members of my small community, with people who knew our particular history because they had lived it—far beyond my own time. But I have discovered in recent years, that our lives are richer for being bound through knowledge and story, to the time before our own, and through imagination and vision, to the time that follows ours and maybe farther. And so a job I had long ago has enriched my life far beyond the pittance of my earnings. I realize now that whole lives of people I have known have mattered to mine long after their own, in my basic human life, and in my wilder life as a poet. These other lives have given me the gift of gravity and the gift of wonder, and have been more than ample compensation for my labors. For a 12 year-old exposed to the richness and variety of this older world, I felt as if my job had walked me into a book, a book I wanted to read again and again.

 

Peter Meinke

One summer in the early 1950’s,  making money for college, I worked at the Boonton Molding Company making plastic dishes. The molding room was a scene out of Dante’s Inferno.   Gleaming breathing machines hissed up and down, workers hunched in front of them transferring compressed-powder disks like hockey pucks from a small oven to the molding machine, and then punched the button to bring the forms together to mold the plate, saucer, or cup.   When the mold opened you had to pluck out the red-hot piece with a suction cup, drop it in a tray, pick up the disk, put it in its oven, brush the rough edges of the plate or cup; and start the whole process again.   We were paid by piece-work, and the men worked very fast.

The heat was fierce, probably illegal today, and all of us were soaked within minutes.   This was before air-conditioning and the windows were closed because floating dust might get into the machine and create a flaw in the finished product: pale-colored plates, saucers, and cups, a bit thick but unbreakable and charmingly shaped: they’re collectors’ items today.

There were eight machines, and every two hours I’d slow down my machines and run out and get eight cokes. (The men were so fast they could reach over and keep my machine going, at a slower pace.)   I was the only boy—a man I caddied for got me the job; and the men treated me well.   They kidded me because I worked the swing shift (8-4, 4-12, 12-8) and I’d arrive in everything from pajamas to evening clothes. Their guesses as to how I spent my days and nights were delightfully obscene.

After my stint, I’d change near the loading dock (there was no shower).   Occasionally a police car would slide by. A policeman who had watched our high school games would get out and wave, and I’d toss him a cup or scale a plate, and then duck back inside, feeling very grown up.

 

Brian Swann

Work as unpleasant necessity, work as punishment, working by the sweat of one’s brow–this is the legacy of Adam and Eve. It reflects mythically that  moment when the more easy-going paleo-and mesolithoc gave way to the hard-working, town-building neolithic.

I am lucky in that I have never had to think of work as an unpleasant necessity, perhaps because I consider my profession, teaching, a kind of privilege (most of the time). For me, real work is physical and doesn’t take place in an office. Work means sweat (the fact that I emerge sweaty from teaching complicates the issue). I come from a long line of hard workers, paid-up members of the English working class: coal miners, ship-builders, plumbers, blacksmiths, housewives, truck, bus and train drivers, all of whom left school at 15 or younger. My father ran away from home at 14 and spent thirty years in the engine rooms of Royal Navy ships, five of those years in the North Atlantic during WWII.

I do not want to romanticize work because while it can dignify it can also be boring and dangerous. In fact, men I worked with spent a good deal of time and ingenuity trying to avoid it.   If I do romanticize work from time to time, it may be because “ ’tis distance lends enchantment to the view,” and because my time as a worker was always temporary, no matter for how long. I knew I could get out. But those memories left strong impressions which I’ve drawn on all my life.

When I praised my fellow-workers to my father he was not impressed. From time to time he predicted  a career for me as a garbage collector (“dustman”), but in more optimistic moments thought the civil service would be a good fit, if only for the pension.

My first job was working on the farm across our street, driving the cows, all ten of whom had names and  were of different breeds, to and from pasture, milking them, delivering the milk in a horse-drawn cart, cleaning out barn and shippen. I did this up to the age of ten when my family left Wallsend, my mother’s home town, for Cambridge, my father’s.  I loved being among animals and having the men who took care of them treat me as an adult, especially when it was time for the cows to be served by our old, reluctant, bored bull, Bill, who always needed a hand, literally. Then in high school holidays there was getting up before dawn to ride my big red GPO bike across town to sort and deliver the mail, or on my own treasured Raleigh, again before dawn, riding off to Histon to pick fruit for Chivers who sent it on to the specialized luxury  Covent Garden Market in London, though many a luscious purple Victoria plum ended in my stomach. I still recall sitting up a tree with a plum, the cool morning dew still on it, delaying the pleasure of biting into it. In one of the gardens, I found a tree of magical apples, some of which I brought home. My father surprised me by eating one and getting hooked. I kept him supplied as long as I could and he talked about those apples until he died, which was puzzling since he hated apples, saying they smelled of fish. Strangely, he loved fish.

My fruit-picking skills were put to the test when, a year or so later, as a member of the university’s Travelers’ Club, though I had never traveled anywhere, I signed up for a charter flight to the US. When this was cancelled  I was given the choice of a refund or a charter to Israel. I chose the latter though I had barely heard of the country. The only Israel I knew of was in the Bible. I spent  months at kibbutz Yad Mordechai, not far from Ashkelon and the Gaza Strip, picking fruit with a rifle strapped across my back.

There were other non-manual, non sweat-inducing jobs including a well-paid position with Esso Standard Italiana in Rome, an account of which I’ll save for another day, and stints at Heffers bookstore in Cambridge where I sold a collection of Wordsworth’s poems to Benjamin Britten. To cover my shyness, I pretended I didn’t know who he was, so I never asked him, or Peter Pears, for their autographs. I spent my lunch breaks up in the gallery that ran around the store reading all eleven volumes of The Golden Bough. When I wasn’t selling books I was driving in a small van all over Norfolk buying up libraries from the wives of deceased clergymen and schoolmasters.

In other college vacations I stacked planks and boards in a woodyard and worked as a “porter” (orderly) in Addenbrook’s Hospital. My specialty was wheeling patients about and helping in  the morgue with its ghoulish attendant who, after hosing down the post-autopsy floor, would sit down on his stool for a sandwich lunch with bits of flesh sticking to his high yellow boots. Then there was working for the city at a new housing estate digging drains in heavy, stinking, blue fen clay. Shay and Shaun were twin Irish navvies whose shoulders were too wide to fit into the trench so one or the other would start the dig and I would finish it. They entertained themselves, and the housewives peeking out from behind curtains, by fashioning giant gray phalloi, balls to match, and being inventive with them.  It was amazing to me how the work actually got done, because, when not entertaining the housewives and hurling clay lumps at each other we spent most of time inside the construction tent. Our foreman, a fellow Geordie, kept an eye on the sky for any signs of a cloud. When one appeared, no matter how flimsy or far off, “Howay, lads,” he’d say. “Rain,” and in we’d go where much tea was brewed and consumed, along with something stronger. Since this was England, there was a lot of rain.

I’ve always had a thing for digging. At the age of 15 I dug up an overgrown half-acre allotment for my father to grow potatoes in.  Then, decades later, when my wife and I bought our house and ten acres upstate, I surprised and alarmed her because even before we’d moved the furniture in I’d grabbed a spade and rushed out back to dig a hole for no reason save the sheer joy of digging in the earth after years in the concrete city. She called the hole “Swann Lake” though it seldom retained any water. During years that followed I dug a three-feet deep ditch in hardpan, filling it with buckets of cow and horse manure from a neighbor’s field as well as buckets and buckets of duff from old and rotten trees. The trench became a long-maintained, ever-growing garden stretching in a half-moon around the house.

My first summer in the US, after a year as a graduate student, was spent working for Wayerhaeuser in Longview, WA. I’d gone west with the romantic notion of being a lumberjack, toting my ax among giant redwoods but, since I was deemed too tall and not nimble enough to get out of the way of falling trees, I ended up in a foul-smelling factory making plywood at a lathe and trying to avoid the fate of my predecessor who somehow managed to fall among the machete-sized knives used to strip bark off trees and turn them to chips. All they found, some time later, was part of a silver watch-band embedded in a roll of paper. I boarded at a Finnish guesthouse where I became friendly with one of the brothers-in-law of a local jeweler who ran a wife-swapping group. Since I had no wife, the jeweler kindly offered to lend me one. He had two, he said, both named Judy.

Nowadays, the only physical work I do is at the gym, two or three times a week. On the rowing machine I sweat and relive my glory-days. Ah, rowing, “a strenuous yet sedentary occupation,” as Max Beerbaum called it. I never lost a race, then or now.

 

Garrett Hongo

Every summer between school years while I was in college, I worked for the Department of Water and Power of the City of Los Angeles as a seasonal meter reader.  This meant that I spelled regular workers over the summer months so that they could take their vacations, about two weeks long each.  As there was an entire pool of meter readers, this meant I worked throughout the summer months.

My job was to walk a given route each day, taking me through just about every neighborhood in LA—from the Van Owen Reservoir in the San Fernando Valley to the loading docks and canneries on Terminal Island in San Pedro—and make readings of the electric and water meters.  I walked the Chicano neighborhoods in the hills around Dodger Stadium and read water meters buried in the dirt.  I strode briskly through neighborhoods in Watts where I saw children “walking” pet cockroaches on a makeshift leash of thread or string.  I’ve had a shotgun trained on me through a peephole, a policeman sweep his sidearm past me tracking a fleeing thief, and Dobermans and German Shepherds and Rotweilers pursuing me, foaming at the mouth.  I read meters throughout the Hollywood Hills and saw a beautiful rock star stark naked walking her pet Afghan hounds around her spacious back yard.  I read George Harrison’s meters.  I read James L. Jones’s meters.  I read the meters at the Hollywood Bowl.  If you lived in LA at that time, I likely read your meters too.

While I was always on the move, speed-walking from meter to meter–jumping fences, leaping over brick walls, cutting through a whole residential street’s worth of backyards—I still had a lot of time to think.  And what I thought about entailed a kind of rhyming—squaring the experience of working hard with my college courses in Shakespeare, British and American romanticism, Chinese and Japanese literature, and the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein.  What I didn’t want to do was isolate one experience from the other.  What I wanted was to join my life—one of work along the wide and narrow avenues of LA—to the great voices I was hearing in my head as I traipsed, in 95-degree heat, up a long hill full of apartment houses, dodging children and dogshit along the sidewalks.  They flee from me that sometime did me seek would echo in my mind as I glanced from behind a lavish bush of jasmine flowers, its redolent scent carried on an ocean breeze, over a magnificent patch of the aquamarine Pacific pitching in cowlicks of waves below me.

On a given day, I’d take my lunch in a park I’d spotted on my route, opening up my sack of sandwiches, chips, and cut cucumbers and carrots.  I’d have time for gazing deeply from under the mottled shade of a bigleaf maple tree out toward the end of whatever block to a confusion of billboards, street traffic, fast food joints, and the sheen of yellow and brown along the belly of sky above them.  I’d see past these to Othello standing under stars, raging in his folly; to Ophelia recumbent in a coffin of pondwater; to lunatic Whitman yawping in ecstatic praise for all our peoples under democratic vistas.

I had that job over five or six summers.  I liked it.  It gave me a rhythm for my thoughts.  It gave me the acquaintance of all of Los Angeles and its harbor.  It gave me the start to all further ramblings and the groundnotes to a barbaric song of knowings to come.

 

Thomas Sleigh

On a “Sentimental Education”

 

Before we get to the poem, a little back story: in the late 1960’s, when I was fifteen, I ran away from home and joined up with a paramilitary organization called Quest International. It’s a long complicated story as to how I finally decided to run away, so I’ll skip over that: but once I’d decided that home life was intolerable, I began looking for opportunities—and to my vast surprise, found the perfect one. There, in the help wanted section of the San Diego Union was an ad which read something like:

 

Wanted: Quest International is looking for unattached single people to serve as crew for salvage operations in the Caribbean. We will train you to dive for sunken treasure. Room and board included.

 

We were mainly a collection of misfit drifters—petty thieves, bikers, ex-military, teen runaways like me, even a guy who claimed to be a rodeo clown. Quest was run by a man named Captain Nashe, and we were called Captain Nashe’s pirates. Our dream, our goal, our delusion—it partook of all three—was to go salvage diving in the Caribbean and look for sunken treasure. To pay for this adventure, we would fix up old cars, trucks, buses—any piece of junk you could buy dirt cheap at auction—and then sell them in the hope of amassing enough cash to buy a salvage vessel. It sounds ridiculous written out in cold blood like this—but it was exactly the adventure I was looking for.

Since I’d never worked on machinery before, I was constantly making mistakes and accruing demerits—as I said, we were organized along military lines—which had to be worked off by putting in extra hours. But eventually I got accustomed to working hard, on very little sleep, seven days a week. I learned—slowly—about carburetors, brakes, pumps and hoses, machinery of all kinds, and how to fix them—or fix them well enough so that whoever bought one of our Frankenstein creations could at least drive it off the lot before it malfunctioned and began to wreak havoc among the villagers. My poem tells part of this story, but it mainly focuses on a moment of my education in work that was conducted at the hands of a Vietnam Vet, a true martinet. He was none too fond of me, or of anyone else, as far as I could see. But for all his ragging on me, he taught me two very useful things: how to handle a torque wrench and, of equal value, the limits of empathy.

 

Sentimental Education

 

After my bravado in telling him off, not in words

but by beating him at chess after days of long hours

spent underneath a bus putting in a new transmission

for the Methodist youth group we overcharged,

filling in the dents with too much bondo

so that our grinders burned out their motors,

both of us on our backs in the oil-misted dust,

how he hated me: hated me so purely

for what he thought I wasn’t and could never possess:

a straight-up military bearing, a way with tools

bred in the bone that shunned all catachresis,

knowing the difference, say, between a screw thread

and threaded screw: from the grease-grimed school buses

we slept in, to the indoctrination of our welfare selves,

ripping off the bounty of the state’s USDA tins of chicken

and vegetables, I was what he would call a “wuss”—

runaway from home with a pillowcase of clothes,

Shakespeare’s plays, and a condensed Webster’s Third.

To his paramilitary camp, this shitkicker’s Sherwood Forest,

I was a raw recruit in need of what he called “toughening up”—

and yet his dream of pursuing sunken treasure by selling

fixed up cars, boats, dilapidated engines spread

like brontosaurus bones all across the muddy yard,

his moniker Rogue and an attic full of semi-automatic weapons,

made him in my eyes the perfect foil for what I wasn’t

and wanted to be—for him, I was cheap labor, just another fool

of the overlords, the ladder I was climbing just another ladder

burning downward to the ground of the class abyss

between my humming John Lennon’s, A working class

hero is something to be, and his brazen manhood’s

rage that made him play Hun to my crude Byzantium.

And all this mutual projection came to a head when my bishop

took his queen, and checkmate brought about

his humiliation: my tools, like the torque wrench

he’d taught me how to use, now seemed an affront

to his gruff instruction; and so he left me

pinned for thirty seconds under the weight

of the transmission as he stood there smiling,

then finally winched it off: how impersonally

personal he took it out on me: the bruise

on my chest was my baptism in the rancorous

militant god and his ever vengeful host of horsemen

sweeping down from the Pripet Marshes to

the marshes around Rome that I told myself

I could escape by defeating him on the moral plain

I envisioned hovering above the chess board—

but not, it seems, above that engine yard so filthy:

he laughed, shrugged, and went back to tinkering

with the spark plugs. My ribs felt the blunt angle

of his hate precise as the machined cavity

I stared up into and where all my milky notions

got revised, the dying Gaul, booby-trapped

in jungle war, whose stripes he’d worn and had to bear,

leaving his carnal heart in bloody pieces on the field.

And afterwards, after I’d learned to hate him back

and take pride in my revenges, the shock I’d administer

by letting the jumper cables slip a hairs-breadth from

his wrist and, looking up into his eyes, meekly apologize

with all my hypocrite fervor that he’d know exactly

how to read, that year of my farcical graduation from “wuss”

to “heavy dude,” I see the bus drive off to a death metal version

of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” guitars ripping into

flame riffs of metal grinding metal like the new brake pads

screeching when the driver hit the brakes

and because we’d wired the brake lights

to the headlights to the overhead lights

the whole bus lit up, inside and out, the blaze

so bright we couldn’t help but cheer to see

the vehicle of our transgression drive away.

 

Tara  Betts

One of the hardest jobs that I ever had was when I worked at a dry cleaning store in Chicago. I bagged and tagged people’s clothes, so I would spend hours folding cardboard inserts into suit jackets, buttoning at least the top 3-5 buttons of every shirt, and clipping skirts and pants to hangers in an exacting fashion.  The plastic bags were slid gently over each order and the tags had to be firmly attached to each bag since they had a large rotating rack with the tags in numerical order. My job was tedious, but I felt bad for the young Mexican woman who was hesitant to speak to anyone. She operated the old, large dry cleaning press, where she made every piece meticulously crisp and wrinkle-free, even when we were wilting in the summer with only two large fans to blow around the humid air. I got fired for inadvertently pointing out that the boss had charged a man more for his dry cleaning than the listed price.

 

Ron Smith

Savannah Roots

               in memory of Phil Levine & Royce Smith

Except for the numbing month cool in Mr. Dunham’s
tiled fluorescence selling bats, gloves, caps, spikes,

it was ditch digging, old style, with shovel and pick.
                       In the cut across the Esso slab
            after Melvin’s jackhammer, we boys

                       swung and stomped like Milledgeville crazies.
One hundred plus in the blinding Georgia sun
            let us prove our manhood

single file behind men who’d been at it
                       for decades putting food on their tables.
            “You betta slow down,” Louis said that first day,

            “you boys gonna fall out.” Royce sneered
and swung the pick and I stomped the shovel
                       with a football growl and pretty soon

we were alone in the trench
                       all of them knew wasn’t safe any more.
            Most days we laid conduit.

            Once we bailed all week a manhole
that filled up every weekend. Ma Bell took us off
                       that job after nearly a month

of nothing. I was five hundred miles north
                       in Shakespeare when Earl died in the cave-in.
            Sam got electrocuted before Royce graduated.

                       The rest of them kept at it
through hangovers and divorces, Friday night
            scraps, short trips to the lockup.

By August we were all slow but steady, sweat
                       pouring off of us like the promised waters
            of mercy as we hacked the black serpents

                       of the live oak roots, our elders sometimes
keening a tune almost gospel, some days never
            lifting our eyes from the depths

till boss man said Lunch and the world came back—
                       shady squares hung with moss,
            pines and palms and metal heroes

                       in funny hats. I remember so much
laughter! Why can’t I remember a single joke
            from when we, clowning like the gravediggers

in Act Five, all of us stinking with joy, dirt-smeared, each of us clever
in his own silly way, all of us alive, breathed the same heavy air?

 

    –Ron Smith

 

 

 

Kathleen Flenniken’s collection, Plume (University of Washington Press, 2012) , a meditation on the Hanford Nuclear Site and her home town of Richland, Washington, won the Washington State Book Award and was a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America and the Pacific Northwest Book Awards

Jane Hirshfield is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Come Thief (Knopf, August 23, 2011), After (HarperCollins, 2006), which was named a “Best Book of 2006” by The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and England’s Financial Times and shortlisted for England’s T.S. Eliot Award; and Given Sugar, Given Salt (finalist for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award); as well as a now-classic book of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry.

John Kinsella is founding editor of the journal Salt in Australia; he serves as international editor at the Kenyon Review. His most recent volumes of poetry are Divine Comedy: Journeys through a Regional Geography (W. W. Norton) and  Disturbed Ground: Jam Tree Gully/Walden (W.W. Norton).

David Huddle’s fourth novel, The Faulkes Chronicle, was published by Tupelo Press in September 2014, and LSU Press will publish his eighth book of poems, Dream Sender in Fall 2015.  He lives in Burlington, Vermont.

Ron Slate has published two books of poems, The Incentive of the Maggot (2005) and The Great Wave (2008), both via Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  He writes about books at “On the Seawall” (ronslate.com) and recently became a board member of Mass Humanities.

Thomas Lux was awarded the Kinglsey Tufts Prize for his book, SPLIT HORIZON. The most recent of his 12 full-length poetry collections is CHILD MADE OF SAND (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).

Timothy Liu (Liu Ti Mo) is the author of nine books of poems, includingOf Thee I Sing, selected by Publishers Weekly as a 2004 Book-of-the-Year; Say Goodnight, a 1998 PEN Open Book Margins Award; and Vox Angelica, which won the 1992 Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award. He has also edited Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry.

Afaa Michael Weaver 蔚雅風, poet & playwright is the winner of the 2014 Kingsley Tufts Award.

Lia Purpura’s recent books include On Looking (essays, Sarabande Books), a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and King Baby (poems, Alice James Books), winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award.

John Skoyles is the author of four books of poems and three of prose, most recently, A Moveable Famine: A Life in Poetry.  He teaches at Emerson College and is the poetry editor of Ploughshares.

Molly Peacock’s newest book is Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions, illustrations by Kara Kosaka (McClelland & Stewart, 2014).

Page Hill Starzinger’s first full-length poetry book, Vestigial (2013), was selected by Lynn Emanuel to win the Barrow Street Book Prize in 2013.

David Baker’s most recent book is Scavenger Loop, from W.W.Norton, 2015.

Nancy Mitchell, is the author of two volumes of poetry, The Near Surround (Four Way Books, 2002) and Grief Hut, (Cervena Barva Press, 2009.

Dzvinia Orlowsky, Pushcart Prize recipient and Founding Editor of Four Way Books, is the author of five poetry collections published by Carnegie Mellon University Press, most recently  Silvertone.

Jim Daniels’ recent books include Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry, Carnegie Mellon University Press, All of the Above, Adastra Press, and Trigger Man, short fiction, Michigan State University Press, all published in 2011.  Birth Marks, BOA Editions, appeared in 2013.

Amy Gerstler’s most recent books of poetry include Dearest Creature, Ghost Girl, Medicine, and Crown of Weeds. Her book of poems Bitter Angel received a National Book Critics’ Circle Award in 1991.

D. Nurkse is the author of ten collections of poetry, most recently A Night in Brooklyn.

Maurice Mannings most recent books are The Gone and the Going Away and The Rag-Pickers Guide to Poetry, co-edited with Eleanor Wilner.

Peter Meinke‘s work has appeared in The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, and dozens of other journals.  He has published 15 books of poems, and his book of short stories, The Piano Tuner, won the 1986 Flannery O’Connor Award.

Ron Smith is the author of the books Its Ghostly Workshop (2013), Moon Road: Poems 1986-2005 (2007), and Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery (1988). In July, he  was named Poet Laureate of Virginia.

Brian Swann’s most recent publications are IN LATE LIGHT, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013 (poetry) and SKY LOOM: NATIVE AMERICAN MYTH, STORY, AND SONG, University of Nebraska Press, 2014.

Garrett Hongo’s collections of poetry include Coral Road: Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011); The River of Heaven (1988), which was the Lamont Poetry Selection of The Academy of American Poets and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Yellow Light (1982). He is also the author of Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai’i (1995), and he has edited Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays and Memoir by Wakako Yamauchi (1994) and The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America (1993).

Tom Sleigh‘s many books include Station Zed, Army Cats, winner of the John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Space Walk, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award. Far Side of the Earth won an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The Dreamhouse was a finalist for the LA Times Book Award, and The Chain was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Prize. His work appears in The New Yorker, Poetry, as well as The Best of the Best American Poetry, The Best American Travel Writing, and The Pushcart Anthology. He has received the Shelley Prize from the PSA, and fellowships and awards from the American Academy in Berlin, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the Lila Wallace Fund, the Guggenheim, two NEAs, among many others. He is a Distinguished Professor in the MFA Program at Hunter College and also works as a journalist in Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, Kenya, Iraq, and Libya.

 

 

[Editor’s Note: Thank you to all the contributors — a pleasure!]