The seventeen metal huts across the way
from the great factory house seventeen
separate families. Because the slag heaps
burn all day and all night it’s never dark,
so as you pick your way home at 2 A.M.
on a Saturday morning near the end
of a long winter you don’t need to step
in the black mud even though you’re not sober.
You’re not drunk either. You’re actually filled
with the same joy that comes to a great artist
who’s just completed a seminal work,
though the work you’ve completed is “serf work”
(to use your words), a solid week’s worth of it
in the chassis assembly plant number seven.
Even before you washed up and changed your shirt
Maryk invited you for a drink. You sat in the back,
Maryk and his black pal Williams in the front,
as the bottle of Seven Crown passed slowly
from hand to hand, eleven slow circuits
until it was empty and Maryk opened
the driver’s side door and placed the dead soldier
carefully bottom-side down on the tarmac
of the parking lot and then drove you home
or as close to home as he could get
without getting his sedan stuck in the ruts.
Neither Maryk nor Williams had made a pass,
neither told a dirty joke or talked dirty.
The two, being serious drinkers, said
almost nothing though both smoked and both sighed
frequently, perhaps from weariness,
from a sense of defeat neither understands,
or more likely because their lungs are going
from bad air and cigarettes. You’re nearly home
to number seven, where a single light burns
to welcome you back with your pay envelope
tucked in your shirt pocket, the blue, unironed
denim shirt your oldest, Walter, outgrew
eleven years ago. Bernadette Strempek,
let me enter your story now as you stand
motionless in the shadowy black burning
inhaling the first warm breeze that tells you
this endless winter is ending. Don’t go in
just yet; instead gaze upwards toward the stars.
Those tiny diamonds, though almost undone,
have been watching over your house and your kids
while you’ve been away. Take another breath,
a deeper one and hold the air until you can’t.
Do you taste it? You shake your head. It’s God’s
breath, a magical gift carried
all the dark way from Him to you on the wind
no one can see. Seventeen separate huts
hunkered down and soberly waiting, this night
three of you in a ’47 Plymouth four-door
drinking Seven Crown for eleven circuits
until the work was done, one woman alone
beneath the blind sky, standing patiently
before number seven Mud Lane taking
into her blood one gasp after another
of the holy air: the numbers say it all.
Some mornings she simply cannot
Some mornings she simply cannot
bring herself to pray. Even so, a prayer
will at times break through her clenched lips,
announcing the slow drain at her heart.
She will raise her face from its cage of fingers
and gape at the fog that has lain itself down
over the field behind her house like
a dream of erasure. Even the green trees have
lost color. No air breathes. Not a wing of sound
flies back from the highway behind the hill.
And then some midnight, when faith
has quite emptied itself, a familiar loneliness
makes itself at home under her ribs.
A ghost of God? An inkling? She holds
her breath, listens as a small draught
weathers its way through the eaves,
into her ears. The next moment she hears her child
stir in the room down the hall, calling
her name, as if he names her longing and in
that naming, names a kind of answer.
Outside Kroger, the prophet rages,
There is none righteous, no, not one!
holding the book aloft, the chosen pages
memorized. The parking lot is biblical
in this heat; he’s working hard. My wife smiles
at him after strapping on the harness
and settling our newborn close against her chest,
happy with the weight of the small body
fragile as belief in God.
No, there is none righteous, no, not one.
Inside, the other shoppers stop their carts
and offer their clichés. “She’s so good,
just a little angel.” “They’re such miracles
aren’t they?” I nod and give the smile
expected. But really I want to say, “No,
I think you’ve got the simile wrong.
Parenthood is a land of signs, where
without speech she lets her will be known.
She’s more like God. The world needs repair,
and we rush to do her bidding.”
While God nurses there is relief
for the first time this hour. I gather
cloths, drops, close the hamper. Together
my wife and I think, Dear Lord, forgive us our unbelief.
Today is Passover,
but I’m a Christian, not a Jew.
The question, What to do?
since not only first-born sons need cover.
Dear God, I will do anything—
paint the door a color the neighbors
will comment on, seed the lawn with ragweed,
goldenrod—to keep the Angel at bay.
Help us through this afternoon, this night,
that will last the rest of our lives.
Help us take faith in the darkening quiet
each evening when it passes over our hearts.