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The Former Miner Returns from His First Day as a Service Worker (at a McDonald's somewhere in Appalachia) -- Mark Defoe

This week we'll be running a guest theme, "Poems at Work". The theme was
suggested (and most of the poems submitted) by Vikram Doctor:
(Poem #537) The Former Miner Returns from His First Day as a Service Worker (at a McDonald's somewhere in Appalachia)
 All day he crushed the spongy buns, pawed at
 The lids of burger boxes and kiddie pacs
 As if they were chinese puzzles.

 All day long his hands ticked, ready to latch on
 Or heave or curl around a tool
 Heavier than a spatula,

 All day he rubbed his eyes in the crisp light.
 All day the blue tile, the polished chrome, said
 Be nimble, be jolly, be quick.

 All day he grinned while the public, with bland
 Or befuddled faces, scowled over his head
 And mumbled, whispered, snarled, and snapped.

 All day his coworkers, pink and scrubbed,
 Prattled and glided and skipped while he,
 All bulk and balk, rumbled and banged.

 Near shift's end he daydreamed - of the clang
 Of rock on steel, the skreel
 Of a conveyer belt, the rattling whine
 Of the man-trip, the miner's growl of gears
 As if gnarled, toothing at the seam.

 He makes his slow way home, shadow among
 Roadside shadows, groping back in himself
 For that deep, sheltering dark.
 He has never been so tired.
 His hands have never been so clean.
-- Mark Defoe
from "For A Living: The Poetry of Work", ed. Nicholas Coles and Peter Oresick.

I really liked the way this poem captures the image of a passing of a way of
life. Perhaps it even makes a political point, but not in any in-your-face way.
The language is spare and to the point, yet poetic: "shadow among/Roadside
shadows, groping back in himself". And the last line makes its point in a
quietly devastating way.

Mark Defoe (b. 1942) who now teaches in West Virginia, has also worked as a
farmhand, a bellman, a waiter, a circulation manager for a large newspaper, an
advertising copywriter, and a free-lance writer. His two books of poetry are
Bringing Home the Breakfast and Palmate.


[On the theme]

I don't know what you'll feel about these poems, but they interested me because
one of the subjects that interests me, and on which I write quite a bit, is the
experience of work. Not what work does - not the business a person is in, or his
or her profession, or what they produce - but work itself as the human
action that takes up so much of our lives.

It's not something most poets feel like writing on, despite the fact that poetry
not being exactly a paying living, most poets have had to work in other fields.
That's why I thought that what poetry does exist about the experience of work is
derogatory or contemptuous of it (like Larkin's Toad poem).

But then I discovered two really good anthologies on the subject: For A Living:
The Poetry of Work edited by Nicholas Coles and Peter Oresick, and the Oxford
Book of Work, edited by Keith Thompson. They opened up a whole new perspective
on the literature of work, and I'd like to share some of these with the list.

The anthologies are somewhat different. The Oxford Book includes all types of
literature, not just poetry, and is mostly classical from well known writers.
For A Living is contemporary, part of the what seems to be the democratisation
of poetry, with people of all kinds, all backgrounds writing poetry, mostly
personal.  This has admittedly produced vast floods of terrible poetry, but some
genuinely good writers have come out of it, and sifted through by expert readers
like the anthology editors you get a range of pretty good stuff, that does what
poetry does so well: sharply illuminate a moment, an idea, a person, a thought.



I just noticed that today is Labor Day in the United States. Rather apt, that.


33 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

Abraham Thomas [Tue, Sep 05, 2000 at 10:02:20AM +0900]:

> This week we'll be running a guest theme, "Poems at Work". The theme was
> suggested (and most of the poems submitted) by Vikram Doctor,
> :

If not already in the list, I strongly suggest you include that William Blake
poem about the Chimney sweep (from songs of innocence). The poem, btw, refers
to the Porter Act, which was one of the first industrial reforms implemented
in Britain.

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