The Worst It Got
A couple of summers I did temp work,
Manpower, Barret Services, between teaching jobs.
It was the eighties and I was in my thirties.
The warehouse was huge and the sump
at the center of a large concrete floor
half a gridiron wide.
There were big turbine engines in one part
and great rolls of metal rope along the walls.
Long canals ran from four directions
into the corners of the sump,
ten feet deep.
On the bottom was a pool of muck and sludge—
oils and fluids and old cruddy cardboard.
We stood there and looked down,
the two of us, the other temp guy and I,
and then climbed down the metal ladder
with plastic buckets and shovels,
rubber boots on our feet.
It took most of the day to scrape and scoop
and slop up
At three in the afternoon we were on our knees
with rags cleaning out corners.
Then, though, both of us stood up
and took the afternoon break.
He lit a cigarette and said he didn’t care
if the whole place
The walls of the sump were dark and grey
with long drippings of crude the color of crap
and we could see above us metal struts
and the corrugated fiberglass of the roof
where the day was sealed in sickly green.
We could hear the trembles and huffs
of engines and big doors clanging closed.
I didn’t care either and thought if
I keep getting jobs
I’ll probably start smoking too.
It wouldn’t matter what brand,
just light a match
Writing a Knife
–after Robert Bringhurst
I want this poem to be sharp
as a knife, a hunting knife,
the kind I used to hone
with a whetstone and spit.
It will be so sharp I can shave
with it, using cold water
from a mountain stream
to wet my face. The scrape
of the knife will sound
like two stones struck together
to start a fire, the kind
I want this poem to cut
the sadness from your heart,
to hunt all day in the forests
of grief, sniffing the air, staying
downwind, stepping carefully
among the dead leaves.
I want it to cut along
the tissue between the
good flesh and the bruise.
It knows what to pack out
and what to leave for death
to use—coyotes and wolves,
the vultures’ helical hunger.
A good poem knows
its way around the flesh
where the heart has hidden
its pain. Let it track down
that pain and slice it out.
Here it is, the pain
in the poem’s hands.
Go now and wash
the blood from the blade.
Toward an Ordinary Mythology of the Sparrow
Creating gods is something that human beings have always done.
— Karen Armstrong, A History of God
When speaking of the ordinary, sparrows come
to mind and so the ordinary can seem like a gift
when it sifts into the honeysuckle and chirps
like joy. It seems so wildly ordinary this thing
this ordinary bird flocks and flutters in
little swiftnesses. It seems, as well, so simple.
But the markings of sparrows are vivid
and complicated and there are dozens of kinds:
swamp sparrow, sage sparrow, lark sparrow,
white-throated, black-throated, and golden-
crowned sparrow, fox, vesper and song sparrow.
This suggests something extraordinary–
diversity, variety, complexity, by god.
One sees, since every sparrow is different,
that nothing is, really, ever ordinary,
which is an arrangement, a setting
of threads, a ranking, a framing, a choice.
I am reminded of an old saying, Where there is
veneration even a dog’s tooth emits light.
The same may be said of the simple sparrow.
There is a god of smallnesses, a god of sparrows,
a god so ordinary he happens in the honeysuckle.
Tim Barnes, a poet and scholar who lives in Portland, is author of Definitions for a Lost Language, editor of Friends of William Stafford: A Journal and Newsletter for Poets and Poetry, and co-editor of Wood Works: The Life and Writings of Charles Erskine Scott Wood.