Working People's Poetry Competition
The First Time I Got Up Early
The first time I got up early,
and put my work boots on
and knew that they meant work,
I was nineteen, freshly dropped out of college,
and I came downstairs to join my father
in the kitchen.
He'd lost his larynx the year before,
had learned to belch out words without a voice box.
He stood there in his white Stone Products uniform,
and I stood there in my work boots,
and he just cried. His stoma, the hole
they leave you with when they cut a larynx out,
filled up with mucus. He had to dab it with a tissue.
He said nothing, but pulled two soft bills from his wallet
and handed them to me.
Later, when I came home, machine grease in my pores,
stinking of coolant mist and sweat,
he offered me a beer. "Here kid," he belched --
my father, fifty-five years old, reduced
from Grade A machinist to janitor, the guy who cleaned the toilets
cancered, and canceled. He said, "Work is work . . .
only the bosses get to call it a career."
We sat for an hour on the porch, letting the tiredness drink
us, the warm night touch us with its fur. He said, "I'm sorry."
I said, "What are you sorry for?" He didn't answer,
just opened another beer. I wanted to kiss him, but I didn't.
There were these blanks between us, as beautiful
and hopeless as the sky. There were these blanks.
And what could we have filled them with?
Later, when he was too drunk to walk, I helped him
up the stairs.
took his work shoes off, cleaned the snot from his throat hole,
covered him with a blanket. This was love. I meant it,
silent, and knowing it could kill me. I took my time.
Coney Island Dialectic
He said he wanted to be like his dad, work with his hands,
but he answered wrong: they said he had to do better --
each generation surpasses the last. That's American.
Their Sunday stroll along the Boardwalk had been unplanned,
and his aunt, the smart one, approached him a go-getter,
but he told her he loved how his dad worked with his hands,
so he cried, What's wrong with construction? He demanded,
I want to build things! Dad's a carpenter and he can plaster
and he makes things that last, like a real American!
They shook their heads in silence and stared out at the sands,
Such a bright kid, but he talks in a language of failure
to insist in following his dad and work with his hands.
So they all shouted, You go to school to become a man
who does something good! You become a doctor, a lawyer,
who generates big income -- like true Americans.
He did not say a word; he did not understand
why a son turns his back on the work of his father.
He simply wanted to follow his dad and work with his hands,
work that lasts for generations: forever American.
Burn Bright (after Elana Bell)
This is for Simba, who should never give up hope,
whose will and determination course
through veins -- started burning
in her head and heart -- pumping
through her body. And when I say
body, I mean the human body --
whose legs sing on concrete --
slaves giving up all for their nation.
Freed from the womb
on any day of the week and bred
to work for a greater purpose -- to join
a greater body. And when I say
body, I mean the student body --
who is driven with aggression --
whose hands ache from turning pages
and writing essays for examination.
And there is Simba. Caught between bodies --
struggling to exist in both worlds
and being pulled apart.
I am writing this poem because I understand
the demand placed on you,
a young person attempting to find your way
in a society shrouded in materialism -- being valued
for what you have. I see you
like I see the Sun --
rays of bleeding desire,
ready to feed. You will make it.
I am as sure of this as I am sure
that Sol will shine
on this rock tomorrow.
And when I say this rock,
I mean your home.
And when I say home,
I mean your heart.
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For Next Year's Contest
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