from Be Recorder

          after Pedro Pietri’s“Puerto Rican Obituary”

they work their fingers 
to the soul their bones 
to their marrow 
they toil in blankness 
inside the dead yellow 
rectangle of warehouse 
windows work fingers 
to knots of fires  
the young the ancients
the boneless the broken
the warehouse does too 
to the bone of the good 
bones of the building
every splinter spoken for
she works to the centrifuge 
of time the calendar a thorn 
into the sole dollar of working 
without pause work their mortal 
coils into frayed threads until 
just tatter they worked their bones 
to the soul until there was no 
soul left to send worked until 
they were dead gone
to heaven or back home 
for the dream to have USA 
without USA to export
USA to the parts under 
the leather sole of the boss 
they work in dreams of working 
under less than ideal conditions 
instead of just not ideal 
conditions work for the 
shrinking pension and never 
dental for the illusion 
of the doctor medicating them 
for work-related disease 
until they die leaving no empire
only more dreams that their babies
should work less who instead
work more for less 
so they continue to work 
for them and their kin 
they workballoon payment 
in the form of a heart attack 
if only that’ll be me someday
the hopeless worker said on 
the thirteenth of never 
hollering into the canyon 
of perpetual time 
four bankruptcies later
three-fifths into a life 
that she had planned 
on expecting happiness 
in any form it took 
excluding the knock-off
cubed life she lived in debt
working to the millionth
of the cent her body cost
the machine’s owner
Yolanda Berta Zoila 
Chavela Lucia Esperanza
Naya Carmela Celia Rocio
once worked here
their work disappearing
into dream-emptied pockets
into the landfill of work
the work to make their bodies
into love for our own

More by Carmen Giménez Smith

Redaction

We make dogma out of letter writing: the apocryphal story 
of Lincoln who wrote angry letters he never sent. We wait for letters 
for days and days. Someone tells me I'll write you a letter
and I feel he's saying you're different than anyone else.
Distance's buzz gets louder and louder. It gets to be a blackest hole.
I want the letter about the time we cross the avenue, and you reach 
for my hand without looking—I am afraid I'm not what you want. 
We float down the street as if in the curve of a pod 
and the starry black is like the inside of a secret. We're drunk. 
The streetlight exposes us which becomes the deepest 
horror. Yes. End the letter like that, so it becomes authorless. 
Then the letter might give off secrets: acid imbalances that detonate.

Beasts

My siblings and I archive the blanks in my mother’s memory, 
diagnose her in text messages. And so it begins, I write although 

her disease had no true beginning, only a gradual peeling away 
until she was left a live wire of disquiet. We frame her illness 

as a conceptual resistance—She thinks, yet she is an other—
to make sense of the transformation. She forgot my brother’s cancer, 

for example, and her shock, which registered as surprise, 
was the reaction to any story we told her, an apogee of sublimity 

over and over. Once on a walk she told us she thought 
she was getting better, and exhausted, we told her she was incurable, 

a child’s revenge. The flash of sorrow was tempered only 
by her forgetting and new talk of a remedy, 

and we continued with the fiction because darker dwindling 
awaits us like rage, suspicion, delusion, estrangement. 

I had once told myself a different story about us. 
In it she was a living marble goddess in my house 

watching over my children and me. So what a bitter fruit 
for us to share, our hands sinking into its fetid bruise, 

the harsh flavor stretched over all our days, coloring them grey, 
infesting them with the beasts that disappeared her,

the beasts that hid her mail in shoeboxes under her bed, 
bills unpaid for months, boxes to their brims. The lesson: 

memory, which once seemed impermeable, had always been  
a muslin, spilling the self out like water, so that one became 

a new species of naïf and martyr. And us, we’re made a cabal 
of medieval scholars speculating how many splinters of light 

make up her diminishing core, how much we might harvest before 
she disappears. This is the new love: her children making an inventory 

of her failing body to then divide into pieces we can manage— 
her shame our reward, and I’ll speak for the three of us: 

we would have liked her to relish in any of the boons that never came, 
our own failures amplified by her ephemeral and fading quality.

Default Message

I have thirty seconds to convince you
that when I’m not home, my verve is still,
online or if I’m sleeping when you call,
sheep are grazing on yesterday’s melodrama.
Does anybody know what the burning umbrella
really meant? Forget it. Tell me what you need.
Leave me a map. Leave me your net worth
for reference. Leave me more than you ever planned.
Frankly, I’m anxious your message will be a series
of blurs, that you’ll leave the endearing part out,
garble your confession: A misstep here, a domain there.
A ventriloquism. The phone is in the kitchen,
but I’ve lost my way. It must be hunting season.
I retract every last gesture for your same retraction.

Related Poems

St. Joske's

Since before the war there was always work.
In '38, Papa sweating all day
for the WPA, Mrs. Wright
hiring Mama and her sisters to mind
the children and the wash—plenty to watch
after in white folks' homes, too much to name.

Took my diploma when they called my name.
Droughton's Business College trained us for work
that spun our rough hands to silk.  My wristwatch
wound mornings to keep time with the workday,
shorthand scrawl etched and sprawling in my mind.
I learned to type and file and smile and write

a message in clear script, to get it right
the first time, not forget the fancy names
of men in suits, to keep it all in mind.
Guarantee Shoe Company, where I worked
first, had me stamping bills, but busy days
I made sales, rang the register and watched

ladies with delicate feet and watches
sparkling with jewel-light from their thin wrists write
checks in their husband's names.  But come Friday
I thought only of the check with my name
on it. Treated myself after work
to a Joske's fountain soda, my mind's

burdens lifting like bubbles, wallet mined
for jukebox dimes.  I'd sit a while to watch
the shoppers and the clerks on break from work
bent over pie at the counter, a rite
shared by the weary no matter their names,
Formica hewn like a pew on Sunday.

Joske's was a fancy store in its day.
Perfumed aisles and Persian rugs—had to mind
your manners, not give our folks a bad name—
fourth-floor Fantasyland's Santa on watch.
St. Joseph's Church next store keeping folks right
with God, refused to sell when Joske's worked

up its expansion plans.  Still came the day
they worked their dozers, dollar signs in mind.
We watched that store exert its divine right.

Steel

A truckload of fresh watermelons, 
lemon-green goodness on a slouching 
truck, cutting through so many states: 
Arkansas, West Virginia, Maryland, 
into the smoke-heavy Pennsylvania cities; 
from red dirt like a land soaked 
in blood to the dark loam of this new 
land—from chaos to the orderly 
silence of the wolf country—Pittsburgh's 
dark uneven skyline, where 
we have found shelter 
while the crippled leader 
waits to promise healing 
for a nation starving 
on itself. Two men, dusty
from the Parchman Farm, 
their eyes still hungry 
with dreams, laugh bitter 
laughs, carrying the iron 
of purpose in them. Hear 
the engine clunking, hear 
the steel of a new century 
creaking. There is blood 
in the sky—at dawn, the city 
takes them in like a woman. 
Inside them all memory 
becomes the fiction of survival—
here the dead have hands 
that can caress and heal, 
hands that can push a living 
body into a grave, hold it there, 
and the living get to sing it. 
This is a nation of young men, 
dark with the legacies 
of brokenness, men who know 
that life is short, that the world 
brings blood, that peace 
is a night of quiet repose 
while the dogs howl in the woods, 
men who know the comfort 
of steel, cold as mist at dawn, 
pure burnished steel.

On Gathering Artists

                           Who does a job well, and very well—

                           These are the artists, those curious

                           Lights.


We are cobblers of the song
And barkers of the carnival word,
We are tailors of the light
And framers of the earth.
We fish among the elements
And hunt the elusive green in gray and blue.
We drink forbidden waters
And eat an invisible food.

In this time of electronic-mail and facsimile
Conversation, we send as our voice
The poem, the bridge, the circuit, the cure
Whose electricity is made from dreams,
Whose song is sung in the colors yet unnamed
Drawn from the solitary études of the soul
And given up in tender to the world.

How easy to spend a day writing a poem,
How hard to spend a life writing a thousand.
A poem, a bridge, a story, a circuit,
Cures, laws, bowls—
The warp and weave and waft of iron
And paper and light and salt:
We labor for a lifetime
But take every day off.
Who knows what to make of us?
We are not the ribcage, but the legs;
We are not the steering wheel, but the headlamps.
We gather happily, if not often. We can’t
Sit still. We hurry off. Good-bye to us,
Hello to us, a tip of the hat
To us, as we go about
The drumming of our stars.