American Life in Poetry: Column 036


In this poem by western New Yorker Judith Slater,
we're delivered to a location infamous for brewing
American stories--a bar. Like the stories of John
Henry, Paul Bunyan, or the crane operator in this
poem, tales of work can be extraordinary, heroic
and, if they are sad, sometimes leavened by a little

In The Black Rock Tavern

The large man in the Budweiser tee
with serpents twining on his arms
has leukemia. It doesn't seem right
but they've told him he won't die for years
if he sticks with the treatment.
He's talking about his years in the foundry,

running a crane on an overhead track in the mill.
Eight hours a day moving ingots into rollers.
Sometimes without a break
because of the bother of getting down.
Never had an accident.
Never hurt anyone. He had that much control.

His problem is that electricity
raced through his body and accumulated.
When he got down at the end of a shift
he could squeeze a forty-watt light bulb
between thumb and finger and make it flare.
All the guys came around to see that.

Judith Slater is a clinical psychologist
and her poem first appeared in "Prairie
," Vol 78, No. 3, Fall 2004 by
permission of the University of Nebraska
Press with the permission of the author.
Poem copyright (c) 2004 by The University
of Nebraska Press. This weekly column is
supported by The Poetry Foundation, The
Library of Congress, and the Department
of English at the University of Nebraska,
Lincoln. This column does not accept
unsolicited poetry.