Typically considered the end of summer, Labor Day can never come too soon for those of us in Arizona. To celebrate not only the slow decline of temperature (102° today!), but also the workers who contribute immeasurably to the liveliness of our country, here's a poem from Issue 26 of HFR, an issue dedicated to the subject of labor.
Lines for Neruda
We were the men who worked the machines,
each one annointed with oil on his knees—
when our families dreamed, machines came awake
to search for us. I don't know, I don't know where
poetry entered. The thousand smashed windows
that watched empty alleys, did the virus
of poems blow in them with the night breeze?
Or the poisonous voices of wet oleanders
on Interstate 5, were they calling my name?
The electrical smell, the machinery smell,
the cannery smell, the armpit smell,
the tuna fish smell, the bakery smell,
the gas station smell, the gunpowder smell,
the Thunderbird smell, the V-8 smell,
the dirt street smell, the tortilla smell,
the ashtray smell, the brown teeth smell,
the Tijuana smell, the cheap perfume smell,
the refinery smell never hinted at poems.
The first verse I ever read
was the letter V sketched in a
lemon sky by gulls escaping
the city dump at sunset
cutting through thin clouds
over the projects
going to a sea I knew
was right across the city
but never saw.
Our lullabyes in those years were the inexhaustible keen
of overhot gears beseeching grease. Our fathers' nightlights,
40 watt bulbs strung up on orange power cords: lynched stars
that swung over their heads, their shadows flapped
like wings of the machines. Old angels squinting their eyes
at nudie magazines they couldn't read—coffee break black and white
braille—the smudge of fingers on thighs,
Pall Mall gasps pipelined on high—a touch of paper skin
colder than snow.
How did the Word ever hunt down our hearing?
The engines of hunger drove us deeper to silence.
What was it that urged us to sing? What beat handle
disengaged the gears, by what chain were we dragged
from the brink. To idle a moment long enough to think.
We lost singers each day: one lost to pistols,
one lost to flames, one coughed dry by cancer,
one erased by the highway. Each one wore black shoes
with working man soles, rippled as waves on a tar shore.
The ironwrack pounded unceasing around us,
the glass crash, the tire burn, the shotgun,
the shouting. Blue exhalations sighed from our Chevies—
were the vowels of my song gasping into the air?
Was the ratchet of pistons this consonance drumming?
Why did poetry come forth from cables, from coils,
punctured by nails in veils of rust
to the rhythm of Border Patrol helicopters
made of words like compadre, amigo, esperanza, dolor
to lay mothwings of poetry to burn on my tongue?