Poetry We Admire: Care Work


“Maybe the only truth under capitalism / is to be found together.”
— Haolun Xu

This month, for Poetry We Admire, we’re looking at poems which engage, in some way, with Care Work; all the time, attention, and labor we give to one another for necessity or love or some confluence of the two.

I had the enormous privilege of spending a week this July at Tin House Writer’s Workshop in Oregon, a space in which I got to witness and participate in the exchange of care work back and forth, in line edits, book recommendations, notes, and letters. For that week I rose to Freddie Scott’s “III. Tempo di Menuetto” and went to sleep to the sound of the Reed college sprinkler system, spending days becoming more possible, because of the care work of interns, workshop organizers, community volunteers, dining room staff, other workshop attendees.

Care work comes at a personal cost in this world — of energy, of hours. And more often than not it is done without reciprocity or payment. But when we do it for one another, in time spent, in attention, in poems, we make just a little space for someone else to become more possible. This, that isn’t nothing, collectively, adds up. So long as gaps in equity for care workers in the United States persist, may we continue to fight to bridge them, and work always to redirect the possibility we inherit and receive into holding those who have held us.

For those new to the idea of care work or looking to learn more, a few texts that may prove helpful  —

Angela Garbes in The AtlanticThe Devaluation of Care Work Is By Design

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice

Silvia Federici, Patriarchy of the Wage: Notes on Marx, Gender, & Feminism


Here, a nest of hatchlings
can be lost and still sit in my chest

from "Diurnal Heart"

by Anna Leahy in Stirring Lit

The enjambment in this poem resembles almost at times a beating heart, each line’s end striking in its own isolate part, parts of a larger rhythm that unifies their solitary selves into something continuous. “Diurnal Heart”‘s formal structure and rhythm together manifest a beautiful sense of constancy that is disrupted by the poem’s sudden end. It’s in that constancy this poem lives, the care this constancy requires and speaks of.


My sons are already
crawling, crawling
over the rug where
we used to lie
talking, talking

from "Mother 1996"

by Nick Visconti in Gulf Coast

This poem is so tender, so gentle with its language; lines flowing one into the next with a patterning that invites the reader in in a way that recalls the work of James Schuyler. As with Leahy’s poem, the passage of time becomes a kind of tempo for this poem, for the hard work of accepting how things change — and how it means to care changes with them.



There was nothing left to finish, and I forgot my mountain.
All I could think about for years after,
was my cat and Heather’s cat.

from "Organica"

by Haolun Xu in Poetry Northwest

I first ran into the work of Haolun Xu through his short film “Winter Prayer”, a piece, at least in slant, about care work. In “Organica”, as in “Winter Prayer”, what lies beyond the self can offer both discomfort and security, but no easy answers. Discomfort or security, sometimes the answer to one is no answer at all, but a reaching for the other.


As the pitchers grow
engorged with vitamins I seek out larger prey.

from "Nepenthes Terrarium"

by Rebecca Hawkes in Salt Hill Journal

I love the way Hawkes’ poem troubles care in two ways, devoting itself to a care that is extended towards the non-human, while also gesturing that engaging in care work is not the same as being free of complicity. As the poem unspools toward its wonderful conclusion, “I seek out larger prey. Lure / mice from their nests between the studs, then trap the merry rats / that flit in the bowels of the communal rubbish skip.” This poem will be with me a long while.



Benjamin Bartu