Take this quiet woman, she has been standing before a polishing wheel for over three hours, and she lacks twenty minutes before she can take a lunch break. Is she a woman? Consider the arms as they press the long brass tube against the buffer, they are striated along the triceps, the three heads of which clearly show. Consider the fine dusting of dark down above the upper lip, and the beads of sweat that run from under the red kerchief across the brow and are wiped away with a blackening wrist band in one odd motion a child might make to say No! No! You must come closer to find out, you must hang your tie and jacket in one of the lockers in favor of a black smock, you must be prepared to spend shift after shift hauling off the metal trays of stock, bowing first, knees bent for a purchase, then lifting with a gasp, the first word of tenderness between the two of you, then you must bring new trays of dull unpolished tubes. You must feed her, as they say in the language of the place. Make no mistake, the place has a language, and if by some luck the power were cut, the wheel slowed to a stop so that you suddenly saw it was not a solid object but so many separate bristles forming in motion a perfect circle, she would turn to you and say, "Why?" Not the old why of why must I spend five nights a week? Just, "Why?" Even if by some magic you knew, you wouldn't dare speak for fear of her laughter, which now you have anyway as she places the five tapering fingers of her filthy hand on the arm of your white shirt to mark you for your own, now and forever.
Philip Levine - 1928-2015
Everyone loves a story. Let's begin with a house. We can fill it with careful rooms and fill the rooms with things—tables, chairs, cupboards, drawers closed to hide tiny beds where children once slept or big drawers that yawn open to reveal precisely folded garments washed half to death, unsoiled, stale, and waiting to be worn out. There must be a kitchen, and the kitchen must have a stove, perhaps a big iron one with a fat black pipe that vanishes into the ceiling to reach the sky and exhale its smells and collusions. This was the center of whatever family life was here, this and the sink gone yellow around the drain where the water, dirty or pure, ran off with no explanation, somehow like the point of this, the story we promised and may yet deliver. Make no mistake, a family was here. You see the path worn into the linoleum where the wood, gray and certainly pine, shows through. Father stood there in the middle of his life to call to the heavens he imagined above the roof must surely be listening. When no one answered you can see where his heel came down again and again, even though he'd been taught never to demand. Not that life was especially cruel; they had well water they pumped at first, a stove that gave heat, a mother who stood at the sink at all hours and gazed longingly to where the woods once held the voices of small bears—themselves a family—and the songs of birds long fled once the deep woods surrendered one tree at a time after the workmen arrived with jugs of hot coffee. The worn spot on the sill is where Mother rested her head when no one saw, those two stained ridges were handholds she relied on; they never let her down. Where is she now? You think you have a right to know everything? The children tiny enough to inhabit cupboards, large enough to have rooms of their own and to abandon them, the father with his right hand raised against the sky? If those questions are too personal, then tell us, where are the woods? They had to have been because the continent was clothed in trees. We all read that in school and knew it to be true. Yet all we see are houses, rows and rows of houses as far as sight, and where sight vanishes into nothing, into the new world no one has seen, there has to be more than dust, wind-borne particles of burning earth, the earth we lost, and nothing else.