Poetry We Admire: Labor


As Philip Levine said in the title poem of his time-honored collection What Work Is, “You know what work is—if you’re / old enough to read this you know what / work is, although you may not do it. Forget you. / This is about waiting, shifting from one foot to another.” Levine invites the reader into his experience of standing in line all morning in the rain waiting for work at Ford only to be turned away; they’re not hiring.  

In the vein of Levine celebrating his blue-collar roots, for September we rounded up some terrific new poems honoring workers — bringing attention to labor of all kinds, including often forgotten or unsung labor done with little or no pay – like mothers, cider-pressers, trench-diggers, coal miners, Taco Bell drive-through workers, and poets.

This month we feature poems from The New Yorker, Isacoustic, BOAAT Press, Poets Reading the News, and an exciting new journal, Taco Bell Quarterly. So, let’s dig in.



Because when I started to stand
I started to faint so I had to crawl

to the sterile diapers and pale-yellow sleeper
folded inside the brown paper bag I’d baked in the oven.

Because I’m still there on my hands and knees,
deflated belly and ripe breasts, huge dark nipples,

tearing open the stapled bag,
fumbling the ducky pins

from “Because”

by Ellen Bass in The New Yorker

The brilliant and beloved poet Ellen Bass knows what work is. From her unforgettable poem “What Did I Love” where she writes with gruesome truth and beauty about the work of beheading, plucking, and disemboweling chickens at the farm, to her most recent poem “Because,” also published in The New Yorker. In this new poem, Bass gives her singular visceral and loving attention to the experience of a mother’s labor. Bass invites the reader behind the curtain into the hospital room to witness the sweat and pain of “pushing too many hours,” the intimacy of the doctor asking for permission to cut her perineum, the forceps, the “flecks of blood still stuck” to the baby’s scalp, her “wet wisps of hair,” and then back home with the baby “whimpering” in her arms, the “wide awake” nights, the ceaseless work of new motherhood while her husband sleeps beside her.



Next we have TWO juicy poems about work by Jason D. Ramsey (who is also the Publisher/Editor in Chief of Barren Magazine and Barren Press) published in last month’s Isacoustic.

….we stirred
straw & pomace with wooden pestles, back & forth,
like oars in rainwater – air sweet with galas

from   “cider press”

Where others break bread, we break ground.
Iron shovels upturn soil – blow after heavy blow.
Claws crack on hard plains

from “Ribcage”

by Jason D. Ramsey in Isacoustic

Jason D. Ramsey skillfully takes us to work in the orchards and cider house where we can taste and smell the tart, the nectar and brine, hear the reverberating sounds where the “spoons clanked; kettles clamored” and “still, we churned.” Then, in the next poem, Ramsey has us again doing hard labor, this time digging trenches where “our hands blacken, knees bend, eyes burn as caverns strafe silently along reeds.” We feel for the poem’s speaker who is left spent and ready to fall into bed “where empty bottles breed red eyes & bedsheets twill in casing.”



and I need a reader, elsewise only me
sees the stump with a pickaxed middle
and the diner’s accumulated fry-oil,
its guard of nurse-mean wasps, the sun
rubycut in the chrome of a passing truck
loaded with crushed chicken. Listen,
I’m not paying you nothing

from “Poem Written as Barter for $366.12 in Outstanding Bills”

by J. Bailey Hutchinson in BOAAT Press

For anyone who has ever labored over a poem, we know that even when we’re doing what we love, there is a reason why we call it our “work.” J. Bailey Hutchinson legitimizes the poet’s work: “I whittle mud from my boot like anyone else.” Here, the poet practices self-care on the page and begins to place value on the skill and labor required of a wordsmith who “can sing about an acorn gourd.” A poet who understands that “the word opaline can put bread in your mouth.”



44 and wasting, the coal miner says, “It’s like
somebody’s sitting on your chest all the time.”
He covers his nose and mouth with a mask.
The ventilator resumes its vigil.

from “Black Lung, Grim Future for Younger Miners”

by Beverly Lafontaine in Poets Reading the News.

In the stark reality of Lafontaine’s poem, a miner is dying from black lung at a much younger age than his father and grandfather did because “thanks to technology, his digs were deeper, deadlier.” Like generations of men before him, he felt a sense of pride when he’d “make the mine yield the wealth of its deepest crevices.” Although the young miner’s father had warned him, “You’ll die to make other men rich,” still his pay would enable him to “keep his promise to the woman he married.” Only now, in life’s bitter irony, “her meagre earnings,/ five days a week steering a school bus/ are all that keep a tinny roof over their heads.”



but by god, Poseidon or otherwise,
the voice coming out of the speaker
made me want the whole menu.

from “Ode to the Taco Bell Drive-Through Worker”

by William Brown in the inaugural issue of Taco Bell Quarterly (TBQ)

This quirky new journal broke with much fanfare. Like the narrator of the poem and his muse (or at least the fantasy he has of this siren from her voice with its “rattle uplifted like a snake’s”), let yourself fall in love. Brown’s poem begins with a sideways & hilarious dedication (For someone other than Matthew Porto, who, when asked if this poem could be dedicated to him, said, “No.”) Sadly, our narrator’s imagined love affair also ends in abrupt rejection when “the voice broke her promise to see me at the window— / the promise that made me comb my hair, / check for deodorant, and question if it was appropriate to leave a tip, or my number, with a drive-through worker.” Kudos to Brown for weaving in myriad cultural references, everything from Greek mythology to Ursula “with eel fingers” from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, all in the space of a Taco Bell Drive-Through. What a trip.



If you’re still hungry for more labor poetry, we leave you with a fabulous award-winning crown of sonnets called “Work” by our very own Palette Reader Alexandra Umlas. This extraordinary piece was awarded the 2018 Pangaea Prize from The Poets Billow and it also won the 2018 Poetry Contest at Poetry Super Highway where it was first published.

Overtime Bonus: Treat yourself with the Worker’s Tanka podcast by Poetry Talk featuring a discussion of six tankas (two each) by worker poets Christine Yvette Lewis, Lorraine Garnett, and Davidson Garrett.

Kim Harvey