Poetry Dispatch No. 250 | September 1, 2008
The Poet Working: Labor Day, 2008
(In Praise of American Poet, Thomas McGrath)
Unions, blue-collar workers, straw bosses, graveyard shifts, punching a time-clock, piece-work, AFL, CIO, Teamsters, IWW, coal miners, time-and-a-half and overtime, sick-pay, work clothes, work boots, work gloves, strikes, scabs, farm workers, supervisors, break-time, Thermos jugs, lunch buckets, walking-the-picket-line…the whole lexicon of the way work once was…was once described in America where ‘labor’ today seems almost undercover. Something whispered, out-of-sight…not to be mentioned (except in terms of migrant workers) in these days of factory closings, outsourcing, unemployment, minimum wages…used-to-be American dreams, dreams deferred.
Readers of this site may recall previous dispatches and high praise of a most neglected American poet, Thomas McGrath, who both worked and stood for that old fashioned American dream machine—in a union-of-humanity sort of way.
I still hold that his book, LETTER TO AN IMAGINARY FRIEND is a literary classic of first rank, as significant a part of our American culture as Thoreau’s WALDEN POND, Whitman’s LEAVES OF GRASS, Sandburg’s, THE PEOPLE YES, Steinbeck’s GRAPES OF WRATH. It has been side-stepped, looked over, lost and kept out of our classrooms far too long—for political reasons.
Here’s an excerpt…a small sense of the grand sweep, beautiful language, of a book that still rings true, captures and holds up to the light the spirit of who we are, or once were.
Take your time. Give every word and line your attention. On this day above all days, listen to what McGrath has to say for himself, for us. – Norbert Blei
from: LETTER TO AN IMAGINARY FRIEND
by Thomas McGrath
That was the year, too, of the labor troubles on the rigs—
The first, or the last maybe. I heard the talk.
It was dull. Then, one day—windy—
We were threshing flax I remember, toward the end of the run-
After quarter-time I think—the slant light falling
Into the blackened stubble that shut like a fan toward the headland—
The strike started then. Why then I don’t know.
Cal spoke for the men and my uncle cursed him.
I remember that ugly sound, like some animal cry touching me
Deep and cold, and I ran toward them.
And the fighting started.
My uncle punched him. I heard the breaking crunch
Of his teeth going and the blood leaped out of his mouth
Over his neck and shirt—I heard their gruntings and strainings
Like love at night or men working hard together,
And heard the meaty thumpings, like beating a grain sack
As my uncle punched his body—I remember the dust
Jumped from his shirt,
He fell in the blackened stubble
Was smashed in the face
Lay on his side in the harsh long slanting sun
And the blood ran out of his mouth and onto his shoulder.
Then I heard the quiet and that I was crying-
They had shut down the engine.
The last of the bundle-teams
Was coming in at a gallop.
Crying and cursing
Yelled at the crew: “Can’t you jump the son-of-a-bitch!
Cal ! Cal ! get up”
But he didn’t get up.
None of them moved.
Raging at my uncle I ran.
Ran sobbing straight to the engine.
I don’t know what I intended. To start the thing maybe,
To run her straight down the belt and into the feeder
Like a vast iron bundle.
I jammed the drive-lever over, lashed back on the throttle,
And the drive belt popped and jumped and the thresher groaned,
The beaters clutched at the air, knives flashed,
And I wrestled the clutch.
Far away, I heard them
Yelling my name, but it didn’t sound like my own,
And the clutch stuck. (Did I want it to stick?) I hammered it
And the fireman came on a run and grabbed me and held me
Sobbing and screaming and fighting, my hand clenched
On the whistle rope while it screamed down all of our noises-
Stampeding a couple of empties into the field—
A long, long blast, hoarse, with the falling, brazen
Melancholy of engines when the pressure’s falling.
Quiet then. My uncle was cursing the Reds,
Ordering the rig to start, but no one started.
The men drifted away.
The water monkey
Came in with his load.
He got no answer.
Cal’s buddy and someone else got him up
On an empty rack and they started out for home,
Him lying on the flat rack-bed.
Still crying, I picked up his hat that lay in the churned up dust,
And left my rack and team and my uncle’s threats,
And cut for home across the river quarter.
Green permission …
Dusk of the brass whistle . .
Green moonlight of willow.
Ironwood, basswood and the horny elm. ; ‘ :
June berry; box-elder; thick in the thorny brake
The black choke cherry, the high broken ash and the slick
White bark of poplar.
I called the king of the woods,
The wind-sprung oak.
I called the queen of ivy,
Maharani to his rut-barked duchies;
Summoned the foxgrape, the lank woodbine,
And the small flowers: the wood violets, the cold
Spears of the iris, the spikes of the ghostflower—
It was before the alphabet of trees
Runeless I stood in the green rain
Of the leaves.
Echo of distant horns.
Under the hush and whisper of the wood,
I heard the echoes of the little war.
A fox barked in the hills; and a red hawk boomed
Down on the darkening flats in a feathery splash of hunger.
Silence and waiting.
The rivery rustle
Of a hunting mink.
Upstream in the chuckling shallows
A beaver spanked the water where, in its time,
The dam would be where my brother, now in his diapers,
Would trap for the beaver’s grandsons.
I could not
See in that green dark.
I went downstream
Below the crossing where I’d swum the midnight river
On my way home from a move.
I put my clothes
Stinking with sweat and dusty (I thought:
How the dust had jumped from Cal’s shirt!)
I put them on the broken stump.
I dived from the hummock where the cut-bank crumbled.
Under the river the silence was humming, singing:
In the arrest and glaucous light
Delicate, snake-like, the water-weed waved and retracted.
The water sang. The blood in my ears whistled.
I roared up out of the river into the last of the sunlight.
Then: I heard the green singing of the leaves;
The night-deep and teasing terror on the lone river
Sang in my bones,
And under its eves and seas I broke my weeping,
In that deeper grieving,
The long, halting—the halt and the long hurry—
Toward the heaving, harsh, the green blurring of the salt
Later, climbing the coulee hills in the sandy dusk,
After sundown in the long northern twilight,
The night hawk circling where the ragamuffin crows
Steered for the cloudy wood;
In that dead calm, in that flat light,
(The water darkening where the cattle stood to their knees)
I heard the singing of the little clan.
Comfort of crickets and a thrum of frogs.
Sleepy rustle of birds.
In the dusk the bats hustled.
The hawk wheeled and whirled on the tall perch of the air;
Down a long cliff of light, sliding from day into dusk.
Something squealed in the brake.
The crickets were silent.
The cattle lifted their blank and unregardant
Gaze to the hills.
Then, up the long slope of air on his stony, unwavering wing
The hawk plunged upward into a shower of light.
The crickets sang. The frogs
Were weaving their tweeds in the river shallows.
The formal calls of a round-dance.
This riddling of the river-mystery I could not read.
Then, climbing the high pass of my loss, I tramped
Up the dark coulee.
The farmyard dark was dappled
With yellowy ponds of light, where the lanterns hung.
It was quiet and empty.
In the hot clutter
Of the kitchen my mother was weeping. “He wouldn’t eat.”
She said, meaning Cal.
She had a womanly notion
(Which she didn’t really believe) that all man’s troubles
Could be ended by eating—it was a gesture she made
To soothe the world.
My father had driven my uncle out of the yard
Because Cal was our man, and not to be mistreated
Any more than horses or dogs. He was also my father’s friend.
I got some supper and took it out to the barn.
In the lemony pale light of a lantern, at the tar end,
He lay in a stall. His partner sat in the straw
Beside him, whittling, not looking at me. I didn’t ask
Where his gun was, that slept in an oily rag
In his suitcase.
I put the food beside him
As I’d done with sick dogs.
He was gone where my love
Nor my partisanship could reach him.
Outside the barn my father knelt in the dust
In the lantern light, fixing a harness. Wanting
Just to be around, I suppose, to try to show Cal
He couldn’t desert him.
He held the tubular punch
With its spur-like rowle, punching a worn hame strap
And shook the bright copper rivets out of a box.
“Hard lines, Tom,” he said. “Hard lines, Old Timer.”
I sat in the lantern’s circle, the world of men,
And heard Gal breathe in his stall.
An army of crickets
Rasped in my ear.
“Don’t hate anybody.”
My father said. `
I went toward the house through the dark.
That night the men all left.
Along toward morning
I heard the rattle of Fords. They had left Cal there
In the bloody dust that day but they wouldn’t work after that.
“The folded arms of the workers” I heard Warren saying,
Sometime in the future where Mister Peets lies dreaming
Of a universal voting-machine.
Quinn goes by (New York, later) “The fuckin’ proletariat
Is in love with its fuckin‘ chains. How do you put this fuckin‘
Strike on a cost-plus basis?”
There were strikes on other rigs that day, most of them lost,
And, on the second night, a few barns burned.
After that a scattering of flat alky bottles,
Gasoline filled, were found, buried in bundles.
“The folded arms of the workers.”
I see Sodaberg
Organizing the tow boats.
I see him on Brooklyn Bridge,
The fizzing dynamite fuse as it drops on the barges.
Then Mac with his mournful face comes round the corner
(New York) up from the blazing waterfront, preaching
And my neighbors are striking on Marsh Street.
(L.A., and later)
And the hawk falls.
A dream-borne singing troubles my still boy’s sleep
In the high night where Cal had gone:
They came through
The high passes, they crossed the darl mountains
In a month of snow.
Finding the plain, the bitter water, the iron
Rivers of the black north …
in the high plateaus of that country …
Climbing toward sleep …
from the laughter.
[excerpt, from Part III, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, Alan Swallow Press, 1962]
Much more on Thomas McGrath can be found here…