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Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers on Monday mornings.
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“Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity
in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. As
members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond
to the human difference between us with fear and loathing and to
handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that
is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it
if we think it is subordinate. But we have no patterns for relating
across our human differences as equals. As a result, those differences
have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation and confusion.”
― Audre Lorde
In the U.S., the first Monday in September is Labor Day, a National Holiday. For many Americans, it’s a carefree last long summer weekend. We often don’t think about the many men and women who struggled so long and so bravely, and in some cases gave their lives, for a 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, better and safer working conditions, old age pensions, and the right to form a union. So perhaps we should take a few moments to remember them with gratitude. The collection of poems here are from different times, places and points of view – the final poem is from the UK, but immigrants and refugees are increasingly seen in much the same way here.
by Langston Hughes
Clean the spittoons, boy.
Clean the spittoons.
The steam in hotel kitchens,
And the smoke in hotel lobbies,
And the slime in hotel spittoons:
Part of my life.
Two dollars a day.
Buy shoes for the baby.
House rent to pay.
Gin on Saturday,
Church on Sunday.
Babies and gin and church
And women and Sunday
All mixed with dimes and
Dollars and clean spittoons
And house rent to pay.
A bright bowl of brass is beautiful to the Lord.
Bright polished brass like the cymbals
Of King David’s dancers,
Like the wine cups of Solomon.
A clean spittoon on the altar of the Lord.
A clean bright spittoon all newly polished—
At least I can offer that.
“Brass Spittoons” from Collected Poems, © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes – Vintage Books
Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born in Joplin Missouri. After working his way to Europe as a ship’s crewman, he spent time in Paris, and London, then returned to the states, spending time in Washington DC, where he met Vachel Lindsay, who helped him gain recognition. He became one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance in New York City
by Rhina P. Espaillat
I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—
Life’s little duties do—precisely
As the very least
Were infinite—to me—
—Emily Dickinson, #443
My mother’s mother, widowed very young
of her first love, and of that love’s first fruit,
moved through her father’s farm, her country tongue
and country heart anaesthetized and mute
with labor. So her kind was taught to do—
“Find work,” she would reply to every grief—
and her one dictum, whether false or true,
tolled heavy with her passionate belief.
Widowed again, with children, in her prime,
she spoke so little it was hard to bear
so much composure, such a truce with time
spent in the lifelong practice of despair.
But I recall her floors, scrubbed white as bone,
her dishes, and how painfully they shone.
“Find Work” from Her Place in These Designs, © 2008 by Rhina P. Espaillat – Truman State University Press
Rhina P. Espaillat (1932 – ) was born in the Dominican Republic during the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. After Espaillat’s great-uncle opposed the regime, her family was exiled to the United States and settled in New York City. She began writing poetry as a young girl, in both Spanish and English, and has published several poetry collections in both languages. She was awarded the 1998 T.S. Eliot Prize for Where Horizons Go, and the Der-Hovanessian Translation Prize for her translations of Robert Frost into Spanish. Among her collections are Rehearsing Absence; Playing at Stillness; And After All; and The Field. Espaillat is a founding member and former director of the Powow River Poets in New England.
Psalm of Those Who go Forth Before Daylight
by Carl Sandburg
THE policeman buys shoes slow and careful; the teamster buys gloves slow and careful; they take care of their feet and hands; they live on their feet and hands.
The milkman never argues; he works alone and no one speaks to him; the city is asleep when he is on the job; he puts a bottle on six hundred porches and calls it a day’s work; he climbs two hundred wooden stairways; two horses are company for him; he never argues.
The rolling-mill men and the sheet-steel men are brothers of cinders; they empty cinders out of their shoes after the day’s work; they ask their wives to fix burnt holes in the knees of their trousers; their necks and ears are covered with a smut; they scour their necks and ears; they are brothers of cinders.
by Carl Sandburg
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.
Carl Sandburg (1876 – 1967) one of the best-known and best-loved American poets, published numerous books of poetry and an outstanding biography of Abraham Lincoln, which won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for History. He also won two other Pulitzer Prizes, both for Poetry, in 1919 for Cornhuskers, and in 1951 for Collected Poems.
by Robert Pinsky
The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians
Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band
Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze
At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—
The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out
Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.
A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once
He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—
Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked
Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord. Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans
Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,
Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
To wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,
The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:
George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit
And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
Both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,
The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.
“Shirt” from The Want Bone, © 1990 by Robert Pinsky – HarperCollins Publishers
Robert Pinsky (1940 – ) born in New Jersey; American poet, essayist, editor, literary critic and translator. He has published numerous books, most of them collections of poetry, both poems he has written and anthologies of works by others, including America’s Favorite Poems, a collection chosen from thousands of letters from Americans who responded to his invitation to write to him about their favorite poem, his special undertaking as Poet Laureate (1997-2000) of the United States. He was honored with the 2004 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry for distinguished body of work.
From The Common Women Poems
II. Ella, in a square apron, along Highway 80
by Judy Grahn
She’s a copperheaded waitress,
tired and sharp-worded, she hides
her bad brown tooth behind a wicked
smile, and flicks her ass
out of habit, to fend off the pass
that passes for affection.
She keeps her mind the way men
keep a knife—keen to strip the game
down to her size. She has a thin spine,
swallows her eggs cold, and tells lies.
She slaps a wet rag at the truck drivers
if they should complain. She understands
the necessity for pain, turns away
the smaller tips, out of pride, and
keeps a flask under the counter. Once,
she shot a lover who misused her child.
Before she got out of jail, the courts had pounced
and given the child away. Like some isolated lake,
her flat blue eyes take care of their own stark
bottoms. Her hands are nervous, curled, ready
The common woman is as common
as a rattlesnake.
“II. Ella, in a square apron, along Highway 80” from The Judy Grahn Reader, © by Judy Grahn – Aunt Lute Books
Judy Grahn (1940 – ) was born in Chicago, but grew up in New Mexico. After she joined the Air Force, she was discharged at age 21 for being openly gay. In the 1960s, she moved to San Francisco, and co-founded the Women’s Press Collective in 1969. Grahn was also a founding member of the West Coast New Lesbian Feminist Movement. She is an editor and contributor to Metaformia: A Journal of Menstruation and Culture. Grahn has given thousands of readings and lectures, frequently collaborating on programs with dancer-choreographer Anne Blethenthal, and with singer-songwriter Anne Carol Mitchell.
Simone Weil: The Year of Factory Work
by Edward Hirsch
A glass of red wine trembles on the table,
Untouched, and lamplight falls across her shoulders.
She looks down at the cabbage on her plate,
She stares at the broken bread. Proposition:
The irreducible slavery of workers. “To work
In order to eat, to eat in order to work.”
She thinks of the punchclock in her chest,
Of night deepening in the bindweed and crabgrass,
In the vapors and atoms, in the factory
Where a steel vise presses against her temples
Ten hours per day. She doesn’t eat.
She doesn’t sleep. She almost doesn’t think
Now that she has brushed against the bruised
Arm of oblivion and tasted the blood, now
That the furnace has labeled her skin
And branded her forehead like a Roman slave’s.
Surely God comes to the clumsy and inefficient,
To welders in dark spectacles, and unskilled
Workers who spend their allotment of days
Pulling red-hot metal bobbins from the flames.
Surely God appears to the shattered and anonymous,
To the humiliated and afflicted
Whose legs are married to perpetual motion
And whose hands are too small for their bodies.
Proposition: “Through work man turns himself
Into matter, as Christ does through the Eucharist.
Work is like a death. We have to pass
Through death. We have to be killed.”
We have to wake in order to work, to labor
And count, to fail repeatedly, to submit
To the furious rhythm of machines, to suffer
The pandemonium and inhabit the repetitions,
To become the sacrificial beast: time entering
Into the body, the body entering into time.
She presses her forehead against the table:
To work in order to eat, to eat . . .
Outside, the moths are flaring into stars
And stars are strung like beads across the heavens.
Inside, a glass of red wine trembles
Next to the cold cabbage and broken bread.
Exhausted night, she is the brimming liquid
And untouched food. Come down to her.
“Simone Weil: The Year of Factory Work (1934-1935)” from For the Sleepwalkers, © 1981 by Edward Hirsch – Alfred A. Knopf
Simone Weil (1909-1943), was a French philosopher, Christian mystic and political activist. Disregarding her frail health, Weil worked for a year in factories to better understand the working people she was trying to help as a trade unionist. She was described by Albert Camus as “the only great spirit of our times.”
Edward Hirsch (1950 – ) poet, critic, and “Poet’s Choice” columnist for the Washington Post, said in an interview for Contemporary Authors: “I would like to speak in my poems with what the Romantic poets called ‘the true voice of feeling.’ I believe, as Ezra Pound once said, that when it comes to poetry, ‘only emotion endures.’”
by Holly McNish
“those god damn pakistanis and their goddamn corner shops
Built a shop on every corner took our British workers jobs
He says those godamn Chinese and their goddamn china shops
I tell him theyre from Vietnam but he doesn’t give a toss
I ask him what was there before that damn Japan mans shop
He stares at me and dreams a scene of British workers jobs
Of full time full employment before the godamn boats all came
Where everybody went to work full time every day
A British Business stood there first he claims before the Irish came
Now British people lost their jobs and bloody turkish are there to blame
I ask him how he knows that fact he says because it’s true
I ask him how he knows the fact he says he read it in the news
Everytime a Somalian comes here they take a job from us
The mathematics one for one, from us to them it just adds up
He bites his cake and sips his brew and says again he knows the spot
The godamn Carribeans came and now good folk here don’t have jobs
I ask him what was there before the goddamn Persian curtain shop
I show him architectures plans of empty godamn plots of land
I show him the historic maps
A bit of sand, a barren land
There was no goddamn shop before those pakistanis came and planned
I’m sick of crappy mathematics
Cos I love a bit of sums
I spent three years into economics
And I geek out over calculus
And when I meet these paper claims
That one of every new that came
Takes away ones daily wage
I desperately want to scream
“Your maths is stuck in primary”
Cos one who comes here also spends
And one who comes here also lends
And some who comes here also tend
To set up work which employs them
And all your balance sheets and trends
Work with numbers not with men
And all your goddamn heated talk
Ignores the trade the Polish brought
Ignores the men they gave work to
Not plumbing jobs but further too
Ignores the ones they buy stock from
Accountants, builders, on and on
And I know it’s nice to have someone
To blame our lack of jobs upon
But immigrations not as plain
Despite the sums inside your brain
As one for one, as him or you
As if he goes, they’ll employ you
Cos sometimes one that comes makes two
And sometimes one can add three more
And sometimes two times two is much much more
And most times immigrants bring more
Holly McNish (1984 – ) studied French and German at King’s College, Cambridge, before earning a master’s degree in Development Economics. She won the U.K. Poetry Slam Contest in 2009, and was third in the global Slam Du Monde contest. She’s been a popular guest on several BBC Radio programs, and her You Tube videos have had over 4 million views. She has also published five collections of her poetry, including Plum, Cherry Pie and Why I Ride
- Old brass spittoon
- Kitchen table
- Wire milk carrier
- Chicago stockyards
- Union mourners for Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire
- Interstate 80 sign
- Simone Weil