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?
This past weekend marked the fiftieth anniversary of what has come to be known as Bloody Sunday, when peaceful protestors in Selma, Alabama marching for civil rights were brutally attacked by state troopers.
In honor of this anniversary, I suggest reading Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass,” a powerful poem by one the twentieth century’s best American poets. Robert Hayden’s most anthologized poem is probably “Those Winter Sundays” (which I wrote about here). He was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress—or, what is now known as Poet Laureate—the first African American poet to hold the post.
Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” is often anthologized, and deservedly so. A moving meditation on parents and children from the not-so-safe remove of adulthood, the poem reaches its plaintive, universal question in just three stanzas.
In the first stanza, the rhymes and alliteration (“weekday weather,” for instance) underscore the repetitiveness of the speaker’s father’s labor (“Sundays too my father got up early” [emphasis mine]); this father doesn’t rest even on the traditional day of rest.
In the second stanza, the “I” appears; the speaker includes himself in those who never thanked his father for his efforts. The same stanza, though, undercuts the father’s act of kindness, since the child fears “the chronic angers of that house.” The sense of icy brittleness expands — hard “c” sounds repeat throughout the poem — to encompass not only the winter cold, but also the chill of strained familial relationships.
The third stanza turns again, as we learn that the speaker’s father not only warmed the house, but polished the boy’s good shoes, presumably for church, an image meant to echo, I think, the biblical story of Christ washing the disciples’ feet. Our knowledge, built on the adult speaker’s point of view, that the father performed these acts of love alone and unthanked — whatever his faults may have been — brings us to the final couplet, in which the speaker asks what we all ask of ourselves at some point, thinking of those who care for us:
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?