“People say — This is how the world works”: Emily Mohn-Slate’s “Needlework”

Emily Mohn-Slate -Needlework-This week’s poem is very new; “Needlework” was just published in Tupelo Quarterly. Emily Mohn-Slate is a poet and teacher, and I had the pleasure of meeting and becoming friendly with her in graduate school (you can read more about Emily here).

I loved “Needlework” as soon as I read it. I’m interested in poems about people’s working lives and poems about everyday events (breakfast, phone calls, walks), and this poem is about both. There’s both a playfulness (the references to the gym and the treadmill–working out–in a poem about work) and a seriousness to it. This stanza–

My father told me to do what I loved to do — one third of my life
will be work. Every day, he arrived home ashen,
hiked the basement stairs broken by long pauses.

–is to me the crucial one (Note how all the stanzas are built to resemble stairs. And the description of the speaker’s father reminds me of Robert Hayden’s brilliant “Those Winter Sundays”). How many of us have been told to do what we love, and how many of us find ourselves instead doing a job we merely stand?

I think the poems suggests that the key to avoiding misery in the work that is one third of one’s life is finding something to love in the work, no matter what it is. Take the men who “cut off the trees’ hands.” This doesn’t seem, at first glance, like loveable work, to prune away something that’s alive (reinforced by the use of “hands” for branches), and yet the speaker thinks she hears “them singing,” an echo of the hum of the machines in the first stanza.

It’s a poem that bears re-reading, and I hope you’ll find it as rewarding as I have.

What’s your favorite poem about work?

3 thoughts on ““People say — This is how the world works”: Emily Mohn-Slate’s “Needlework”

  1. I think I like the ones best that are about normal life, too. I’m not sure I understand why this poem is called “Needlework,” since it sounds like she is grading papers. Maybe I am being to literal.

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