State & Wacker
A man once lived ... who found on the quay of Sligo a package containing
three hundred pounds in notes. It was dropped by a foreign sea captain.
This my man knew, but said nothing. It was money for freight ...
—W. B. Yeats, The Celtic Twilight
Gulls gliding round the lighthouse
that stands far out on a jetty
complain, complain nearby
over the river, sounding like
cats or a boy crying Ow!
In the subtropical nineteen-thirties
my young father and a young friend
buddied up to work as longshoremen
for a few dollars a day and lucky
to get it on the Houston Ship Channel,
till one hot Thursday morning
the friend was crushed by a bale,
five hundred pounds, of cotton
dropped on him for reasons men
believed at the time—loyalty this way,
loyalty that. And believe now.
The very next moment my father walked,
never returning for anything—
lunch, lunch bucket or pay.
Young men owning little, owing little
to anyone else, masters of nothing,
aiming not to be owned.
There was a boxer who could move
a bale of cotton an inch with one punch.
The Ship Channel stank of spilled crude oil,
rotted fruit, diesel fuel, dead fish,
and the one second it takes something
you don't wish to fall, to fail.
That too has a smell worth remembering.
Go north, now, go further back:
For longshoremen, for years,
historical hooves of horses and mules,
clopping on streets and
at the Chicago River drummed
loud on wharf planking.
Work boats—tenders, lighters—
loaded and offloaded barges,
long lines were dipped into deep schooners
wedged close at piers and riverside
docks. Ships converged where
there was freight, hauling lumber,
iron ore, wares, hemispheres;
ships going out carried steel,
grain, gravel, finished goods
and evils, all of this
is finished. Outbound and in
they floated, urged by wind
or with steam power walking
across the deep lake.
Peering into lightless warehouses,
into dank dim hatches, holding
a fistful of pale papers,
men called out, signaled
hooked crates and barrels and bales.
Heavy cargo creaked up, dangled down.
Stevedores working, stevedores looking.
Taking a stand. Standing clear.
Taking a break with a smoke.
Out on the lake, stack-plumes
and freighters inch along,
knowing or not knowing
what they reiterate. Or anchored
in harbor flocks, pleasure-sails
and silenced power growlers
rock like big guitars.
Songs for lifting and heaving and having
to labor rise only
in electric clubs at night.
Weightless dollar transactions
cross waters on the backs
of electrons and we too
in our bodies ride, rattling
toward work, cross.
In rain or sun (How good), over
the river bridges (it is),
inside tinny trains in debt
(to be alive). We peer down
through rusted trestles at
the backwards river that
does not remember.