Two Poems

Two Poems


In a shit-house stall in Central
I saw the one word “Mum”
and thought once more of young men
torn by want or war or hunger
from their families, the West Virginian
I wrote of thirty years ago and knew
fifteen years before that who broke down
and cried and made us cry to hear him.
So I have come full circle in every way.
I sit here helpless, remembering
Pedro Illic’s tale of his grandfather
alone crossing an ocean and two
continents to give what was left
of his life to the nitrate mines
of Chile or my own father fleeing
the wars of Tsarist Russia and sent
to the high adventures of England.
What came back from the Somme
or El Alemain? A torn photograph,
a missing place at dinner which dimmed
and finally vanished over the years.
Europe too went on to fade at last,
still with her grinning queens
and princes good at horsemanship,
her armies of the republic that might
turn out for parades, and all
those overwrought statues to the past
and fountains wasting water. Nothing
that can touch and hurt like this
one simple word a boy far from home
and getting farther carved with a key
he’d never use again because he knew
something must be said and said now,
and he couldn’t think of whom
to speak to, of who would listen,
or a single other word that would do.



When she put her slender arm
next to mine I saw the veins
that climbed from her tight fist
leap a moment and then still.
Her name was Alma Savage,
she was then twenty-seven,
up from West Virginia
less than a life, and we worked
swing shift plating plumbing parts
five nights a week going on
our second year and at last
we shared our names. Seated side
by side, legs stretched out before
us, our backs against a stack
of pallets, she’d turned and said,
“Alma, my name is Alma
Savage.” So I told her mine
It was then she thrust her arm
out, her left, then I my right,
and for a frozen moment
we were brother and sister
or maybe something I had
no name for. I closed my eyes.
The smells were bread, whole-wheat bread,
milk, apples, cigarette smoke,
and her sweat as strong as mine
but sweeter. When the buzzer
jarred me awake, she stood up
awkwardly, and then with her
right arm reached down to help me.
The machines were starting up,
the grinders and polishers,
even the time-clock had loosed
its tongue and was babbling in
our heads: 8:30, and then
8:31, and then . . . midnight,
when I stood, chilled and alone,
under the winking stars, a man
breathing October in the wind
while the houses slowly closed
their eyes and the leafless elms
whispered a name I could devour.