Every city has them--pools of helmeted, stained men
Clustered around engines grinding through night.
White arc lights sear the jagged, scraped surface
Of dirt and cut stone as the men stand guard
Over broken water mains, busted sewer lines, road repair.
Who knows how long they've been there, caught
By the old mephitic street vapors, swallowed by the noise
Of machinery, the long blue flashes of smoke?
Where much is lacking, faces say, there are many wishes.
Or so it seemed after midnight at 5th and 53rd
When this black woman in tight red shorts, lacy blouse,
And black bra clipped past men cutting out a section
Of curb with backhoe and jackhammers.

                                        A riveting Giotto
Angel, she'd plunged to earth to fill momentarily the wing
Of a triptych. As she turned the corner, a white man hunched
Over a hammer, took his eyes off his work, "Hey, Valentine, 
I'll take some of that." With his compressor hissing over
Taxi horns, she never noticed his pain when the hammer
Hit his boot, probably broke his foot. He slumped, wailing,
Ripped the gold cross from his neck as though he might
Heave it after her. I could see in his eyes how close
Hate is to love--the Angel of Mercy now an ugly cunning
Fury, the source of so much uninhaled pollen, the cause
Of the world cut in twain--as she vanished deep into
The luminous fibers of the neat block, both answering
And failing to answer the many prayers she had heard.

From The Salt Hour by J. P. White. Copyright © 2000 by J. P. White. Used with permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved.