Box cars run by a mile long.
And I wonder what they say to each other
When they stop a mile long on a sidetrack.
Maybe their chatter goes:
I came from Fargo with a load of wheat up to the danger line.
I came from Omaha with a load of shorthorns and they
splintered my boards.
I came from Detroit heavy with a load of flivvers.
I carried apples from the Hood river last year and this year
bunches of bananas from Florida; they look for me with
watermelons from Mississippi next year.
Hammers and shovels of work gangs sleep in shop corners
when the dark stars come on the sky and the night watchmen
walk and look.
Then the hammer heads talk to the handles,
then the scoops of the shovels talk,
how the day’s work nicked and trimmed them,
how they swung and lifted all day,
how the hands of the work gangs smelled of hope.
In the night of the dark stars
when the curve of the sky is a work gang handle,
in the night on the mile long sidetracks,
in the night where the hammers and shovels sleep in corners,
the night watchmen stuff their pipes with dreams—
and sometimes they doze and don’t care for nothin’,
and sometimes they search their heads for meanings, stories,
The stuff of it runs like this:
A long way we come; a long way to go; long rests and long deep
sniffs for our lungs on the way.
Sleep is a belonging of all; even if all songs are old songs and
the singing heart is snuffed out like a switchman’s lantern
with the oil gone, even if we forget our names and houses in
the finish, the secret of sleep is left us, sleep belongs to all,
sleep is the first and last and best of all.
People singing; people with song mouths connecting with song
hearts; people who must sing or die; people whose song
hearts break if there is no song mouth; these are my people.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on September 7, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.
Yet life is not a vision nor a prayer,
But stubborn work; she may not shun her task.
After the first compassion, none will spare
Her portion and her work achieved, to ask.
She pleads for respite,—she will come ere long
When, resting by the roadside, she is strong.
Nay, for the hurrying throng of passers-by
Will crush her with their onward-rolling stream.
Much must be done before the brief light die;
She may not loiter, rapt in the vain dream.
With unused trembling hands, and faltering feet,
She staggers forth, her lot assigned to meet.
But when she fills her days with duties done,
Strange vigor comes, she is restored to health.
New aims, new interests rise with each new sun,
And life still holds for her unbounded wealth.
All that seemed hard and toilsome now proves small,
And naught may daunt her,—she hath strength for all.
This poem is in the public domain.
I could tell they were father and son,
the air between them, slack as though
they hardly noticed one another.
The father sanded the gunwales,
the boy coiled the lines.
And I admired them there, each to his task
in the quiet of the long familiar.
The sawdust coated the father’s arms
like dusk coats grass in a field.
The boy worked next on the oarlocks
polishing the brass until it gleamed
as though he could harness the sun.
Who cares what they were thinking,
lucky in their lives
that the spin of the genetic wheel
slowed twice to a stop
and landed each of them here.
Copyright © 2015 by Sally Bliumis-Dunn. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 31, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.
My father tells the story of his life and he repeats The most important thing: to love your work. I always loved my work. I was a lucky man. This man who makes up half of who I am, this blusterer who tricked the rich, outsmarting smarter men, gave up his Army life insurance plan (not thinking of the future wife and kids) and brokered deals with two-faced rats who disappeared his cash but later overpaid for building sites. In every tale my father plays outlaw, a Robin Hood for whom I'm named, a type of yeoman refused admission into certain clubs. For years he joined no guild— no Drapers, Goldsmiths, Skinners, Merchant Tailors, Salters, Vintners— but lived on prescience and cleverness. He was the self-inventing Polish immigrant's Son, transformed By American tools into Errol Flynn. As he speaks, I remember the phone calls during meals— an old woman dead in apartment two-twelve or burst pipes and water flooding rooms. Hatless, he left the house and my mother's face assumed the permanent worry she wore, forced to watch him gamble the future of the semi-detached house, our college funds, and his weekly payroll. Manorial halls of Philadelphia his Nottingham, my father fashioned his fraternity without patronage or royal charters but a mercantile swagger, finding his Little John, Tinker, and Allen-a-Dale. Wholesalers, retailers, in time they resembled the men they set themselves against. Each year they roast and toast one member, a remnant of the Grocer's Feast held on St. Anthony's Day, when brothers communed and dined on swan, capon, partridges, and wine. They commission a coat of arms, a song, and honor my father— exemplary, self-made, without debt— as Man of the Year, a title he reveres for the distinguished peerage he joins, the lineage of merry men.
From Domain of Perfect Affection © 2006. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Poetry? It's a hobby. I run model trains. Mr. Shaw there breeds pigeons. It's not work. You dont sweat. Nobody pays for it. You could advertise soap. Art, that's opera; or repertory-- The Desert Song. Nancy was in the chorus. But to ask for twelve pounds a week-- married, aren't you?-- you've got a nerve. How could I look a bus conductor in the face if I paid you twelve pounds? Who says it's poetry, anyhow? My ten year old can do it and rhyme. I get three thousand and expenses, a car, vouchers, but I'm an accountant. They do what I tell them, my company. What do you do? Nasty little words, nasty long words, it's unhealthy. I want to wash when I meet a poet. They're Reds, addicts, all delinquents. What you write is rot. Mr. Hines says so, and he's a schoolteacher, he ought to know. Go and find work.
From Complete Poems by Basil Bunting, published by Bloodaxe Books (2000). Copyright © 1985 by the estate of Basil Bunting. Reprinted by permission of Bloodaxe Books. All rights reserved.