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 . . .

Modern Talk

Chuck Miller is a writer friend from Albany, and a fellow maltreated survivor of the Times Union Blog Farm. While I consider myself to be a reasonably prolific keyboard wrangler, Chuck is one of a small number of people (Roger Green being another) who can put me to shame with both the volume and quality of the content offered at their websites. Both of those gents have blogged daily for well over a dozen years, never missing a post, ever. There are few constants in life, but I always appreciate the fact that I can go to their websites any day, every day, and get fresh content, constantly, all of which I enjoy.

Chuck has also always been a great champion of the community-building aspects of online communication, and for years he’s devoted his Saturday posts to highlighting other writers’ work from the preceding week. During the Anno Virum, he added a new feature to his weekly round-up, offering a video interview each Saturday with a selected writer from his blogroll. As it turns out, while I was up in Boise this past weekend, Chuck ran a video of a conversation that he and I had taped a couple of weeks earlier. It was fun to chat with him “work from home” style, having not seen him in person since I left Albany in 2011, though we’ve stayed in touch through our websites since then.

I appreciate being included in Chuck’s roster of interesting community-building talks. If you’d like to hear how it went (or hear what I sound like, if you only know me from virtual spaces), click on the screen cap below for a link to the full video at Chuck’s website. A fine idea on his part, well executed. As are most things that he sets his mind to, as will become amply evident if you forage about at his site for any amount of time!

Me and Sweetman’s Christmas

Me and my friend Sweetman, we was deep in dismal thought,
late at night over whiskey (straight) down at Grumpy’s Drinkin’ Spot.
It was Christmas Eve, yes sir, and our wives, they had done and left,
(though that had been many years ago, we was still a bit bereft).

We was chewin’ on pig feets, the kind you pull out of the jar
that sits next to the pickled eggs and the calves brains behind the bar.
Sweetman burped as we finished, then mumbled “Man, this just ain’t right,
we oughta get us some better grub, for to eat tomorrow night.”

Right then, at that moment, we heard some sleigh bells overhead,
so we stumbled out, looked up, and saw a bright red flyin’ sled,
it was headin’ off southward, behind a dozen head of deer,
so I grabbed me my gun real quick before that meat could disappear.

Like an ace, well, I drew a bead upon the twelve point buck up front,
while my good partner Sweetman, he shut up, like when we hunt.
Then I pulled me the trigger, and saw that buck come tumbling down,
me and Sweetman we walked a bit, and found our dinner on the ground.

Man, I tell you, that Christmas night, we had the best damned supper yet
’cause that deer made a lot of steaks, plus some sausage I can’t forget.
So me and Sweetman we sat there, feelin’ bloated and pleased as swine,
gettin’ drunk on the black-tar hooch, that we’d made from turpentine.

Note: Copyright 2004, JES. It’s the reason for the season . . .

It’s Not the Turkey . . .

It is a strange and unsettling Thanksgiving season this year, made even more so here by us being in transition between homes, with our furniture being delivered to the new house on Friday. This morning, we left our AirBnB home of the past month (and its resident javalinas) and are in a hotel for two nights, so really a betwixt situation, on all fronts.

While many or most of us may not experience the traditional big dinner tomorrow, as an offer of  small comfort, I republish an old poem below to remind us all that the turkey is not the most important comestible of Thanksgiving anyway. Not by a longshot.

Here’s wishing everyone health and safety and happiness wherever and however you are able to mark the day. And a big serving of cheese, fat, salt and carbs, readily made in the microwave, easily devoured anywhere, fresh out of the tray . . .

Alma rose at dawn to make the biscuits,
kneading lard into the baker’s flour,
rolling sheets and cutting discs for baking;
it took her just a bit more than an hour.

At that point, Alma turned to make the stuffing:
sausage, cornbread, broth and butter, nuts.
She pulled the neck and gizzard from the turkey,
(which, with the heart, she thought the sweetest cuts).

She filled the bird and stitched it tight for roasting,
then with a jar of cloves, she dressed the ham,
and pressed the honey from the comb she’d purchased,
to sweeten up her famous candied yams.

While collards stewed in bacon fat and bullion,
Alma snapped the beans and okra too,
then shucked the corn, (the Silver Queen she favored),
which, paired with shrimp, went in her Frogmore Stew.

By sunset, Alma’s work had been completed,
the family blessed their meal on bended knees.
An awkward silence followed, ‘til her son said
“How come there ain’t no Stouffer’s Mac an’ Cheese?”

Autumnal

Yeah, I know that the astronomical autumnal equinox happened the week before last, but from a “boots on the ground” standpoint, we’ve been just a bit behind the curve here. (As is often the case in Iowa. Zing!) But that’s changing now, and quickly. Our daily walks over the past few days have involved more clothing layers than usual, and occasional hats, and tonight we’ve got our first frost warning posted. I’m planning to do a long bike ride tomorrow (for this), and it looks like the temperature will be ~36º F when I get rolling. More layers!

But that should be a short-term situation, as  today marks the three-week point before we load up the jalopy and move to Sedona, Arizona. Which means that unless global weirding queues up some particularly extreme and abnormal scenarios over the years ahead, 2020 should the last year that I spend dreading cold season, while trying to enjoy the pleasant elements of autumn. Not complaining. After 35+ years living in the frozen, damp, windy climes of Iowa, Chicago, Upstate New York and Idaho, I’m more than ready for a bit of year-round dry heat.

That said, I do note that I have raw, primal reactions to two common stimuli experienced in Northern autumns: hearing the sound of geese migrating southward and seeing Orion hunting in the Zodiacal plane on crisp, clear nights. I think these sights and sounds must resonate in our collective unconscious from centuries when shorter days and falling temperatures didn’t just mean higher fuel oil bills or extra lap blankets, but instead meant that the most perilous time of the year was nigh, and many of a community’s weaker members wouldn’t live to see the return of sunlight and warmth. Any time I hear the geese fly over, I involuntarily stop in my tracks and look up. Any time my eyes are drawn to the night sky and light upon Orion’s belt, they stay there, taking an active effort of will to look away. Those sounds and sights evoke awe, which I think of as wonder leavened with fear.

Autumn is a bittersweet season, at bottom line. I love the color, I love the weather . . . but winter is coming soon. For inside workers, it doesn’t really change the day to day pattern of our lives. But for those who spend warm months on the land, I imagine winter is a much different experience. I wrote a poem about these sorts of feelings back in the early 2000s called “Harvest.” It doesn’t explicitly mention geese or Orion, but it does try to evoke the sense of awe the season inspires in me. When I wrote it, I kept feeling like I should end it, then kept tacking on extra triplets (it has an odd structure), much in the way that we cling to the last leaves on the trees, the last warm days, the last pleasant evenings, lingering before the darkness falls and the snow is upon us.

While I was looking for that poem today in my old writing files, I stumbled over a few other pieces that also seem to evoke that autumnal spirit for me, some directly, some obliquely. They’re all posted below, for your consideration. Perhaps they’ll read well with a blanket and a cup of hot chocolate?

HARVEST

Let’s take a long deep breath
and ponder the pasture
and our place in it:
we’ve got the harvest in,
the orchards are pruned and
all our wood’s been split;
the leaves have long since gone,
the frost’s on the pumpkins
and it’s cold at night.
In less than four short weeks
we’ll stand here again and
see a sea of white.
We’ve stored the grain inside,
stacked hay in the stalls and
put our tools away.
The growing season’s done,
the colors have faded
into brown and grey.
It doesn’t seem that long
since last we all stood here
at this time of year.
We’ll hunker down inside
for five months or so and
try to fight the fear
that winter brings to us:
the cold and the darkness
and the sickness too.
We’ll count the days for months
and pray for the spring, that’s
all that we can do.
These bittersweet fall months
are fraught with emotion
in these farming fields:
we’re glad the harvest’s done,
we’re proud of our work and
happy with our yields,
but now we hibernate
like beasts in the forest
(less the gift of sleep).
We take one last long look
and walk from the fields, and
many of us weep.

FREEZE

Outside, we can tell the air itself is thickening,
while we ponder cold weather wear we’re ordering
from fall catalogs, the rate of cooling quickening
with the first frost freezing hard the backyard bordering,
the once green growth succumbing to nature’s savaging,
organic ice orchards wilting first then splintering.
By night, we hear the winds all whistling and ravaging,
and know that before we’re ready, we’ll all be wintering.

MIGRATION

Gotta go the long way, fly along the highway,
high above the flyways, flat upon our backs.
Order over-rated, over-saturated,
rate the ones we hated, stop them in their tracks.

Wing as sharp as knife edge cuts into the first hedge,
watching from the high ledge, just above the stacks.
Flightless in the liner, lines from here to China,
over Asia Minor, chin up, Uncle Max.

Gotta go the long way, drive below the flyway,
park it in the driveway, fill and seal the cracks.
Watching the migration on a TV station,
where’s the destination? I’m so bad with facts.

GEMINI SNAKE

Gemini Snake coming out of the forest,
as the leaves fall, he rolls on, he rolls on,
I had a dream he was headed this way, and
I’m thinkin’ he’ll get here tomorrow, ’round dawn.

Gemini Snake at the edge of the farmlands,
he never stops, he rolls on, he rolls on,
went to the church to tell Preacher he’s coming,
and bone up a bit on those visions of John’s.

Gemini Snake in the next village over,
spinning off sparks, he rolls on, he rolls on,
on the horizon, we see smoke arising,
and harvest our crops, and chew bitter pecans.

Gemini Snake coming faster and faster,
right into town, he rolls on, he rolls on,
passes the town square and court house on Main Street,
damned if he doesn’t roll right to my lawn.

Gemini Snake passes straight through my property,
he doesn’t stop, he rolls on, he rolls on,
where he is headed now, I can’t imagine,
but I’m quite relieved by the fact that he’s gone.

HAPPINESS

There’s a lantern in the window
and a wild boar in the wood
as I’m standin’ in the plantin’ field
and feelin’ pretty good
’bout my farmin’ situation
an’ my plans for wintertime,
’bout that woman from Winooski,
‘an how glad I am she’s mine.
Got a bottle in the bureau,
and a smokin’ ham out back,
as I look about my holdin’s,
there ain’t nothin’ that I lack,
‘cept that boar . . . he keeps escapin’
every time we hunt him down:
like a ghost he disappears and leaves
us shootin’ at the ground.
I got ‘coons and I got turkey,
I got squirrels and I got deer,
shoot ’em, skin ’em, cook ’em, eat ’em,
that’s the way we do it here.
But that boar, he keeps eludin’ us,
he’s smart as twenty men.
I b’lieve I’ll know true happiness
when I make a ham of him.

Gemini Snake is a particular loathsome specimen of the hoopsnake genera, clearly.

Five Songs You Need To Hear (I’m Only Bleeding)

In 2004, I took on a self-imposed project to write and post a poem a day on my website for the entire calendar year. I got it done, but it was a slog. On August 31, 2004, the day’s bit of poesy was called “Twice As Far Behind As Yet To Go,” noting that the year had hit its two-thirds mark, and how it was feeling a bit endless on one plane, but with an end visible ahead on another. With a little editing, it’s a perfectly apt sentiment for August 31, Anno Virum, as well:

It’s summer, yet an illness falls like snow,
atop an ice of hatred hard below.
The dire year drags relentlessly, although
there’s twice as far behind as yet to go.
The joys of friendly discourse are benumbed.
We’re isolated, bludgeoned, stricken dumb.
But as we plot the “to” against the “from:”
there’s twice as far behind as yet to come.
Off in the distance, maybe, we can see
a shoreline from this sea of misery.
Perhaps we can feel hope, to some degree,
with twice as much behind as yet to be.
(The writer sighs on reaching a plateau,
with twice as far behind as yet to go).

If all goes as planned, Marcia and I will wave off 2020 from a new house somewhere in Northern Arizona, knowing that we’ll be in the final three weeks of the worst Presidential term in American history. Please Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Brahma, Flying Spaghetti Monster, [Your Deity Here], let it be so. It’s harder to predict the state of the virus and the festering sores of institutional inequity at that future point, though I suspect that with an anti-scientific, greed-fueled, sexist and racist administration perhaps twitching in its death throes, its purveyors and enablers may purposefully make things worse before they have any possibility of getting better. But again, LORD willing and the creek don’t rise, come the end of January, we will most hopefully be in a place where those who steer our collective colorful caravan are actively interested in seeking a path toward health, justice, social equity, security, safety, stability and charity. We’re desperately in need of a new compass pointing that way.

A stirring soundtrack for that trip wouldn’t hurt either. Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to this installment of my ongoing “Five Songs You Need to Hear” series. Which was motivated primarily because I just nabbed one particular song that you most definitely need to hear, right now: Public Enemy’s 2020 remix of their towering 1989 anthem “Fight the Power,” from Spike Lee’s equally thrilling film Do The Right Thing.  The core riffs, beats and rhymes of the original version of “Fight the Power” are just so iconic all these years on, and I am most pleased that P.E. have returned to this classic with a topical and timely update, involving some of the many talented folk they have inspired over the years.

I vividly remember hearing “Fight the Power” for the first time when Marcia and I saw Do The Right Thing (one of my all-time favorite films) in Washington DC on or very near its release date, and it opened with Rosie Perez dancing and boxing on the big screen with that song just absolutely kicking!!! It remains the only time I can ever recall an audience clapping, standing and whooping for an opening credit segment. (You should watch it now). As provocative and inspirational as the song was in and out of its original context, it’s dismaying to think that it’s been 31 years (“1989, a number . . .”) since Spike released that great film, in which the climactic scenes hinge upon a black man being choked to death by a police officer. I guess I hoped, dreamed, maybe even believed in 1989 that things would have changed by 2020 in ways that such acts would be inconceivable, not commonplace. But nope, we’re not there yet. And we’re maybe not even twice as far behind as yet to go on that front. We’ve got work. Let’s do it. Voting smart would be a great step, for starters.

The other four songs in this month’s installment are also 2020 cuts with topical themes, food for thought, fuel for action. You can click here to get all of the previous “Five Songs” installments (scroll down after you click that link to move past this current article), which are now at 18 posts and counting. Loads of musical wonders and weirdness await intrepid explorers there. Get down to the sound of the funky drummer!

#1. “Fight the Power: Remix 2020 (Feat. Nas, Rapsody, Black Thought, Jahi, YG and Questlove)” by Public Enemy

#2. “Amoral” by Napalm Death

#3. “Asylum Seeker” by Gordon Koang

#4. “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)” by Run The Jewels

#5. “Please Don’t Fuck Up My World” by Sparks