Pleasant Smith, 1837

Joseph, Alonzo, Neptune, Truss, and me
lit out under a sky paling towards dawn
yesterday, to trek on down into town
and take our places in the national economy.

Because times are tough all over, poverty
and unemployment rife. Who can compete
with immigrants who’ll work for a bite to eat?
We’re free now: ain’t giving up our dignity.

It ain’t like we’ve done day labor all our lives:
Joseph was a waiter, Neptune chopped firewood,
Truss had him a barber shop, when times were good.
It’s a struggle, now, to feed our children and wives.

But there’s always been work for men who will haul and lift,
doing the labor once reserved for slaves.
(It’s ironic, that those who sweat over harvest have
—after the rich are served—so little left.)

By midmorning the corner crowd had thinned,
as men were picked. At noon, the only job
still open was emptying latrine tubs.
Am I a tub-man? I looked at my friends.

We thought the same thought. Our eyes wouldn’t meet.
Have I fell so low? We trekked back to town last night.
Each took a barking alley by starlight.
And we emptied the perfumed privies of the elite.

Copyright © 2015 Marilyn Nelson. Published with permission of Namelos Editions.