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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 Manning’s most recent books are The Gone and the Going Away and The Rag-Picker’s 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!]