for Fred and Rita at AWP Baltimore Conference, 2003
The hotel room needs more space, the heart
another heart, so the pieces of the wall come
apart, panel by panel, the workers walking
them down into a mysterious hole.
Rita and I wonder where do walls go.
They walk them in the drone way of being paid
by the hour, pacing against the clock
that turns humans into machines, calculated
series of spokes and gears and chips, all
of it with its own mind once we let go
and give them power to fill us, to fill our lives
the way we do with words, the way we listen
tonite to honor Lucille Clifton in
this hotel that sits on the docks where Douglass
learned to write, where I sat for fifteen years,
a Procter & Gamble factory worker more
mechanical than man, an imperfect perfection
Grafting poems silently the way I weep tonite.
Cloth must be moved, tables must be turned.
The dirt that lingers and hides must be found.
O, what a grand thing it was, this city…
my father said three weeks after Pearl Harbor,
his first time in Baltimore, in his teenage prime,
all sharecropper dust and musty heat in his skin,
even in winter. In that city I am still
on the line, as time is a conveyor, and I am
still learning the ways of pistons and valves,
of grooves like the long one above these panels,
the map in the ceiling that leads the wall back
to its Void, its nameless fullness of nothing,
so that we can see Miss Lucille, as is our way
of calling folk, my fifty years down the line
with God some straw boss in white sweat
holding the day’s tally of what has gone where
and who put it there, who are the slackers,
who are the good company men like mules
who will work themselves to the grave and
send themselves and their sons to war because
this is the best life, the chance to work.
“Where do walls go, “ Rita asks me. “Where?”
The Daoists say we must build the spirit
against delusion, the mission now come to
us poets. The Daoists say the life force
is the breath of Immortals, and we listen.
We turn inside to hear immortality’s song rise
above Miss Lucille talking about how all
that has tried to kill her has failed, and we
know we are all there, in the spot handling
the molten steel of a poet’s life in our hands,
the straw boss peering down the line of the
pit we called it in the steel mills, the coke
oven, where flesh will melt and disappear.
In a second I hear my uncle Paul scream
in the pit, the hot steel melting his asbestos,
carving tribal hero grooves in his skin,
my mother screaming in the kitchen,
the wild trochee of a Pindaric ode gone
mad, the epode punishing itself because
it cannot stand the music of its own voice.
So it is tonite, where the waves against
the dock are silent in this room but not
in our hearts, where the room’s demand
for space is filled with room to spare,
valves and vessels laboring against time.
Then the final beating on God’s drum,
ghost solos of Africans sold on these docks,
me escorting Miss Lucille to her readings
in my father’s next to last, his green Chevy,
the Impala, like the grace that leaps—
over the soft crests of the highway,
driving Miss Lucille, driving myself
into the leather hands of the Immortals
who sing who we are. We are workers.