Labors of Love
It’s Labor Day, and the new Poet Laureate of the United States is Philip Levine, one of our great poets of the working person. Listen to him read “What Work Is,” and see the text as you listen, here, via The Poetry Foundation.
Below, read a few poems on various “labors of love” by poets featured here at Escape Into Life. Click each poet’s name to be taken to the solo feature.
Art by Maria Oliva Tyra.
The Girl Who Picked Milkweed Pods
I dreamed with a souvenir seashell next to my ear.
It was September, I wasn’t yet six. Still warm enough
to prop my bedroom window open, I listened
for the footsteps of my father on the front porch,
his out-of-work stance a shadow lit only
by a cigarette. I didn’t understand why my mother
flipped through Sunday papers for coupons,
why she stopped putting money for next year’s vacation
in the wine jug that sat near the cellar stairs.
When I packed my summer clothes away,
I shook stray grains of sand from my sandals,
wondered how I could smell saltwater forever.
I looked for answers in the fields behind my house,
where I brushed aside cockleburs, pushed away
sharp leaves of sows thistles that poked at the air.
Near the trail, I picked prickly pods, scraped
away clingy crab spiders. Sap lingered
on the palms of my hands. With my thumb, I split
the seams, pressed ripped plants to my ears.
I could hear the chortle of the town’s river, the drone
of factories in a metallic round of cricket song.
Memphis Closes Her Eyes
Friday, and I need a drink. Something strong
because it’s rice harvest, so much dust, steel,
and sun. A boy throws sticks to a dog twisting
in the street, and I’m working too damn hard.
Mr. Lake, my next door neighbor, an easy hundred,
oldest of seven dead brothers, trembles to stand
like grass in the wind, is waiting in my driveway
to tell me Johnny Cash, like each of his brothers,
is dead. So I drive to Memphis. Let bourbon
roar down my throat. Watch chaff fires burn
like gods as the sun goes down. Then I’m walking
Union Avenue—drunks and lunatics and bits
of paper drift across the street. A man holds
a cigarette to his lips. Blue neon lights in the gray
of his eyes—and I know there is a song for all of this,
something hard and wild, black as night, and rising.
To Celie, Age Seven, Sprawled Out on Her Bed Snoring Lightly at 9:30 P.M. with One Foot Out of the Covers
I want to get
into your sleep
For The Unnamed Woman in a Photograph
at the New Haven Colony Historical Society
Fixing dinner fit for a preacher, there’s no slow syrup
hours on Sunday for you. It’s not Pulaski County,
Kentucky, but Fair Haven, Connecticut. Exchange
squirrels, hog feet and brains for your fish and clams,
you’d be my Grandma Todd in an apron trimmed
with rickrack bent over a soapstone sink holding strainer
and knives. Spare time’s for fixing. Rocking while a stove
heats to red, your fingers have to be busy shucking raw
oysters in pans set on a square table or turning collars
until pots of water fog the windows. Like my grandpa
who took off for the cow barn before dawn, tomorrow
your husband will be out with first light. Squirming
like an eel out of water, mornings he smells for stench
from low tide before it turns. You’d like to pan fry a mess
of dough for his lunch pail, but all he wants is mackerel
as he storms at you to dock your nonsense, shake
a leg or overtime will be paid to his boat’s crew. Sleep
only widens the space between hours that are tweezed
of pleasure, of friends that will not be given back to you
on this earth. If you did not corset days with work,
what would you do? Nets to mend piled by the door keep
you inside. There’s no way for you to pull yourself from
the catch your husband takes from the Quinnipiac River,
any more than the lobsters struggling on the mud-caked
linoleum can save themselves from your boiling pan.
from Hardboot: Poems New & Old