Labor Day 2021
Art by Salma Arastu, My God is Near and He Listens
And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth … –God
One day I went to the field which saw
the first meat sacrifice, and found there
a monument of raised and crusted swan,
a pillar of capture and swirl in honor
of the moment blood spilled into wine.
This was a field of wigwams and Cesar
Vallejo. Of “Just a minute,”
and “I’d rather you wouldn’t.”
I asked the field how it contends
with the interactions of starlight and cars.
I asked what it felt like when a tractor
rides through churning up ribcage and onions.
I asked what it feels like to melt.
I wondered what the field’s favorite labor was
and it said, “Gathering.”
To which I said, “But why so soon?”
Salma Arastu, What Favors of God You Deny
I invited a sad friend to visit the temple
and see the big blue pot of begonias behind
the hostas, painted ferns, and tall daylilies,
to smell the sweet, green leaves of the sumac
blessing the midday shadows and breezes.
My friend asked if I was talking of the temple
I’d toured when I was young in faraway Japan.
I said no, I mean the humble paradise I’ve made
of my backyard garden of roses and boxwood.
It’s hard labor, I said, but any garden can be
a living temple. Then if we must leave home,
the garden’s fragrant peace accompanies us.
My friend agreed. Yes, he said, he would visit
on Tuesday, and he’d bring his broken heart.
Salma Arastu, Indeed You Give in Abundance
The dent in my fingernail from where the hammer struck is moving, week by week, closer to being clipped. It used to take 36 stripes with the mower to clear the front yard; now it takes 32. I keep telling people the woods are trying to get inside our house, but I’m being dramatic. After all, the shrinking lawn is mostly due to my own laziness, my wish to see what the pokeweed looks like as the berries fill with ink. Still, Everest is rising 5 millimeters per year. It will eventually become unclimbable again — the bodies of the fallen preserved and carried into the speeding clouds.
Salma Arastu, Increase Me in Knowledge
As Long As the Light Lasts
Howard carries breakfast’s leftover coffee in a glass jar to the work site,
drinks it with his lunch lukewarm. Erma drinks water, by season
frozen overnight or boiled for a thermos. They take apart buildings
for scrap, board by board, nail by nail—outbuildings on farms or small
houses in tiny towns, no place to pick up a Coke or sandwich if they
wanted to, which they don’t. Did I say they’ve been on Social Security
for seventeen years? They sell the windows or copper pipe, use
the rest to build storage sheds, miniature red barns. They knock off
work about four to sit out the heat of the day, or get home before dark
at the other end of the year. They are devotees of the public library.
Between extremes they garden after supper, as long as the light lasts.
[first published in The Hardy review, and forthcoming in Brown Restless Green, Finishing Line Press]
Salma Arastu, If You Remember Me, I Will Remember You
Clara Barton at Her Dressing Table
―June 5, 1889
In cotton chemise and underskirt, I sit
at my vanity and regard the old woman
in the oval mirror. Never mind the lines
crisscrossing my face; all that matters
is the work yet to do.
Still a full hour before I depart for Pennsylvania―
time enough to make myself presentable, finish packing
my hand luggage for the train trip from Washington
to Johnstown, a city overcome by flood
just five days past.
I’ve set aside my day skirt and waist in the wardrobe,
and draped my corset and cover over the wooden chair.
My tapestry bag readied―journal and cedar pencil,
handkerchief, fan, coins for tipping the porters.
Obligatory hat and gloves placed at the foot
of the boarding house bed; doubtless they’ll remain
on a bedpost or peg once I arrive.
If I were to lend credence to the astonishing headlines―
Town Is Wiped Entirely Off the Map; 12,000 to 15,000 dead!
Hundreds of Corpses Floating Down the Conemaugh; and
most horrific of the lot, Two Thousand Burn to Death
In the Wreck―I would be daunted by the task awaiting me.
Newsmen what they are, the actual numbers will likely
be less than half what’s in print. I straighten my spine
and take a long breath. After Antietam, I believe myself
equal to anything.
My long brown hair a shade darker now; I detect glints
of iron grey in the mirror. Still thick and fine, though, falling
in waves down my back. My “crowning glory,” mother would say.
Otherwise, the glass has verified throughout these 67 years
that I am plain, which suits my practical nature.
With the routine fifty brush strokes I begin the calculations
of supplies, quantities thereof, delivery method. . .
14, 15: coal tar, matches. . .21, 22: muslin, Borax. . .
35, 36: water, lumber. . . 49,50: a team of doctors, nurses.
A simple hair dressing this morning: I part my hair
with the wooden comb, straight down the center
into equal panels then begin plaiting the hair in back,
coil it into a bun. Quickly twist the sides into rope braids
and wind them back around.
One by one, I pick five hairpins from the old rouge pot;
weave them into the compact knot of hair, and with each pin,
list another item: soap, cook pots, blankets, clothing, linens.
A quick crimping around the part to shadow the roots, then
pat every last hair into place.
On an ordinary morning I would have run hair oil
through the length, taken the time to fashion English braids,
and secured the whole of it with a tortoise shell comb.
But this is not an ordinary morning.
A deep breath then before rising to dress: first opening
the corset lacings and wrapping it around my middle.
Fastening the busk, I stand taller than my five feet.
Reaching back, I snug the tie loops tight. Then once again,