Working People's Poetry Competition
From My Hands
I've had a wide workplace:     this valley
rugged and gentle hills, green or cougar-
tawny, in their seasons.     Our treasure,
this land, through the earth's generations.
These hands have worked as Grandmothers
taught: harvesting willow, sedge, redbud.
Cleaning, preparing. Weaving baskets
as small as a hummingbird's nest,
baskets tall and wide. Bowls, trays.
Baskets for home, to give, and to sell.
Earning well, my baskets, since I
was a girl. Twining or coiling,
baskets bloomed from my hands
like summer flowers. Joy, each one,
and work that helps support my family.
Teaching. Teaching our young ones.
Generations, I've taught.
Girls, and nowadays, young men,
delighted, and serious.
Morning birds, is your song today gentle,
sweet, because you see my tears?
My students' work:     baskets presented
as gifts; baskets spent on college books.
Kind, these young workers, and wise.
Every session, I, working as a teacher,
they, working to learn, is a rightness
in the world. But today's lesson?
Today I must teach them: walk here
in Summer's power, Autumn's freshness.
Walk here, and love Winter's rest,
Spring's sweet, tender energy.
Cherish the wild birds' conversation,
the teasing of the leaves.
But for your work, you basketweaving,
turn away from this place
in our ancestors' home.
Harvest here no more.
Look now for your "fiber"
. . . in city shops.
These strange ugly sores on my lips,
in my mouth, my throat:
they have spread.
Disease brought to me
by our land's "new culture":
highway traffic toxins
slithering through the air,
oil, gas, washed downslope
into streams . . .       poisoning
our willow, our sedge,
fibers we moisten, soften
with our lips.
Poisoning us while we work.
Cancer, the doctor says.
I cannot be repaired.
You, my students,
and never give up!
This precious work,
beautiful and useful,
is rooted in our land,
and in our breathing.
My work, my basketweaving,
comes to its last breath,
but your work will go on.
Please let it go on.
Leslie Irene Johnson
Loading Dock Lead Moored at Kellogg Marine
My down time is my daughter time
My sleep time has become my down time
And my overtime doesn't cover my lifetime,
Why my daughter time became my Lyft drive time
Just grind, grind, grind all the time
Grind me up, use me up
Mix the calcium and iron
With the aggravate aggregate.
Pour the nation's foundation
Forgotten in real time
Just write, Susan said
but you don't have much time
Now that I've double-timed
Creation with lunchtime
I'm out of time
For all the other times I've needed
And the impossibly valued moments
When I can stare into infinity
Are worth so much less than before
To those who merely wish to buy my time
Break my stare and focus back
Tying down twelve hundred pounds of anchors,
Loading it with eight hundred feet of chain
my hands, my heart, my head safely securing
heavy load going out into the world
Traveling the long roads to a paradise destination
where I haven't got time to be.
Roses at the Coal Drifts
I will tell the truth wherever I please.
I. Life in Hunky Hollow and the Cost of Coal:
(Windber, Pennsylvania, Somerset County)
Once winter settled across bituminous fields
of the mine patch, everyone shivered inside
weatherboarded flats, at bedtime huddled
into each other like house wrens under eaves.
Wood burning cook stoves took the chill off
mornings in Hunky Hollow off Old Scalp Hill,
families treading carefully across newspaper
carpeted floorboards they could never afford
to finish in the company house, nothing like
bossmen's Queen Annes up on the hill
with their wraparound porches, fireplaces,
running water, and indoor bathrooms.
Some afternoons, alive with sun, mothers
scheduled laundry by the way the wind blew in
from the colliery, and kids joined in the dance
of clothes hanging, handing up wooden pins
and folding themselves inside fresh sheets
between the outhouse and the smokehouse,
roses at the coal drifts of Eureka No. 40's
relentless banging of cars feeding the plant,
screaming whine of blowers cleaning coal.
Everything on tick to King Coal grab-all stores,
money moving like water through a bucket
with holes, paycheck deductions washing over
mine owners until debt ticked off that never could,
their barges swelling with coal cars and profits
fueling steel, rail, and electric industries,
soot and ash clawing faces in the mines.
II. The Comfort Wives and the System of Esau:
( Beckley, West Virginia, Fayette County)
Mining men liked to tipple and gamble,
get rowdy, while church women were fettered
in silence and fear by The Company Store.
Unlike Old Testament Esau, who relinquished
his birthright for food, their bodies were traded
in back rooms to the company guards.
Degraded in rape rooms for a poke of beans,
loaf of bread, bottle of milk to feed children,
or another week's rent to keep a roof overhead.
In front rooms, double-dealing company men
mastered skullduggery in small town politics.
They issued scrip to wives to buy things
when husbands couldn't work, collateralized
their flesh to pay off debt, no one daring
talk about what went on in Whipple's Shoe Room,
what men dubbed just a bit of hanky-panky
as they gave gift boxes of shoes to women
the defiled, women who rigged their own
from cardboard, newspaper, and twine
or went barefoot burying their shoes
in bedroom closets with their shame,
mourning doves cooing and windowsills.
Some as young as twelve were dispatched
along the Appalachians into coalfields
as comfort wives, and when big with child,
babies pilfered and bartered for rifles or hogs,
bossmen free to plunder men and boys in mines
to work the rock face chipping, cutting, blasting,
women and girls in the fields and across the floorboards,
mouths silenced with gags of grief, hope left
to the gift of ghosts' roses at the coal drifts,
all the petals laced with black dust.
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For Next Year's Contest
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