Odes to Labor

Ten little poems for you (all copyright JES, 2004) in honor of Labor Day, and the workers of the world who the holiday honors, hopefully with a day of rest.

#1. Where the Oysters Are

Push off in the bateau
and through the marsh we go,
way on out there where the oysters are.
Toss out the dredge and tong
drag and pull all day long.
It’s our job to stock the oyster bar
at the brand new resort
where the rich folk cavort,
arriving in their expensive cars,
to eat oysters and drink,
all wrapped up in the stink
of imported fine hand-wrapped cigars,
never thinking of us
who work from dawn to dusk,
way on out there where the oysters are.

#2. Midlevel

The buck? You know it’s stopping someplace higher,
The shit? I see it as it’s flowing lower.
I’m working here, behind the line of fire:
I fix, but I don’t aim, the fire throwers.
The chairmen without faces drop the orders,
I drop them quickly on the faceless clerks.
Don’t venture past my job description’s borders,
that’s terra incognita in my work.
Anonymously, that’s the way we’re quoted,
defined by work and never by our names.
On graphs, our productivity is noted,
red ink for losses, black lines plot our gains.
Midlevel: where I live and where I’ll die,
the limbo of the average working guy.

#3. Beryl

Beryl shared her name with a versatile gem, a fact missed by her mother (now dead).
Her name, Beryl knew, had been taken instead from a romance book mother had read.

Beryl (the stone) was usually nondescript until key trace elements were introduced.
If, for instance, you added chromium, then a precious green emerald was produced.

You could infuse beryl’s matrix with a trace of iron and end up with blue aquamarine.
Beryl had read of such pretty rocks, with rhinestones the sole gems she’d seen.

Beryl was plain, too, in her natural state, before painting herself with henna and kohl,
and hiding behind green and blue eye powder so nobody could look into her soul.

Wrapped in color and swirling in feathers, Beryl danced on the stage every night,
for the seedy old men with their one dollar bills who were desperate, but always polite.

At the end of the evening her color came off; nondescript, she went home to her son,
and counted her tips and read romance books, just the way that that her mother had done.

#4. Bogmen

we dig the peat moss ‘neath the hoarfrost sign the old cross
gather stones
wash wild lettuce let grit upset us pitch a fit fuss
spit out bones
there’s no pretending nor comprehending we’re just wending
through the bogs
wet trousers saggin’ as we’re draggin’ simple wagons
made of logs
in the night we drink and fight
kill the light to make it right
on and on until the dawn
when we’re strewn out on the lawn
wild insane consumed by pain
whipped and chained we work again
to dig the peat moss ponder our loss curse the old boss
gather bones
pitch a fit fuss kick up old dust whimper and cuss
spit out stones
cinch the straps down turn the cart ’round drag what we found
hate the bogs
nuts to soup we fly the coop thrown for a loop
and crushed by logs
whipped and chained we work again
wild insane consumed by pain
’til we’re strewn out on the lawn
on and on until the dawn
kill the light and make it right
let us drink and fight all night
let us drink and fight all night
let us drink and fight all night

#5. The Boots of Sleep II

Leap out of the boots of sleep,
rip open the sash,
assault the innocent morn
with bayonets of caffeine,
bullets of bacon,
and fried chickens (yet unborn).

Feint and thrust decisively
in your turbo Saab,
liberate the passing lane,
evade capture, play Wagner,
survey the bunker,
seize your cubicle again.

Review plans and strategies,
goals and objectives,
rally yon weary minions,
Patton at the water tank:
damn Montgomery
and his weak-chinned opinions!

Carpe diem, warrior,
office commando,
Sherman of the morning shift,
strike while the world is sleepy,
but save Savannah
as a presidential gift.

Burn brightly, flash, flare and die
by second smoke break
outside of your fortress keep,
anesthetized by donuts,
collapse on your shield,
slip into the boots of sleep.

#6. Delmas, Master of Tractors

These big ol’ caterpillars here, I’ll tell y’,
they’re like the lions in a circus cage:
doin’ what y’ tell ’em while y’r watchin’
then bitin’ your ass off when y’ turn away.
Y’ gotta crack the whip with’ese ol’ fellas,
let ’em know that y’r the big, bad boss,
but at the same time y’ gotta love ’em, too,
gotta keep ’em good n’ healthy, at any cost.
They’re more’n just big piles o’ glass n’ metal
and I b’lieve they can smell fear on a man,
but I walk confidently through their garages,
maskin’ m’ scent with th’ grease on m’ hands.
I respect these tractors, n’ that respect’s mutual,
they know it’s me what keeps ’em fit an’ clean.
I’m not no fancy doctor or lawyer or nothin’,
but I’m King o’ the World to these here machines.

#7. The Cedars of Chalybeate Hollow

Just look at them there cedars,
man, they’re gorgeous and they’re fragrant,
above the springs
with the red iron water,
they’ve got to be quite ancient.

We sit beneath them resting,
soon the half of us are snoring,
but we’ll wake up
real quick, just as soon as
the chainsaws start their roaring.

We’ll cut the trees to pieces
and then sell them in the city,
where fancy folks
put chips in their closets
to make their clothes smell pretty.

#8. Cow Catcher

The engineer stands way back in the dusty cab
of the 2-6-2 engine rolling southwest from Canadys,
bound first for Hampton and then for Savannah,
heavy with a load of southern yellow pine trees.
The sun’s setting there directly out in front of him,
so he squints and blinks beneath his stained denim cap,
ringing his bell periodically, in good force of habit,
just to alert anything caught unawares in his path.
He turns to checks his steam pressure; there’s a thump
and he sees some broken thing as it flies into the field.
He keeps on steaming, thankful for the welded black iron wedge
that kept whatever it was from derailing his engine’s wheels.

#9. Labor, Organized

They cut the timber, we make it into pulp
They bring us pine trees, we grind ’em into pulp
Our machines eat up their logs in one big scary gulp

They work the west seam, we burn their coal for heat
They bring us black coke, we burn it up for heat
Watch ’em coughing up their lungs while drinking in the street

They grow the soy beans, we feed ’em to our pigs
Feed corns and soy beans, we give ’em to our pigs
Come the holidays we’ll have some bacon with our figs

They’re in the garden, with pitchforks in their hands
Pitchforks and torches, and long ropes in their hands
We sit here in darkened rooms and wait for their demands

#10. Fishing Vessel Ophelia Rae

The sun’s rising on the horizon
as our boat motors into the east,
with nets hanging low on her winches
like wings on some cumbersome beast.
She’s a mote in that vast living ocean,
a speck catching yet smaller specks,
which we haul up in great writhing masses
and then dump in her tank, below decks.
With a full metal belly, she shudders
as we turn her back ’round t’wards the shore,
and then ease her back into her harbor,
where she vomits up shrimp by the score.
And the townsfolk, they scoop up her purging,
which they take home to shell and de-vein,
and then eat with their families at dinner,
while our boat, she gets hungry again.

They didn’t appear on your plate by magic, you know . . .

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