Category: Poetry & Arts

Blast Mat

The blast mat was made of old tires,
cut in half and strung on steel cable,
all those trips—to Iowa, the grocery,
the hospital, and orchard in the fall—
cinched together like a bracelet of travel,
and the bracelets, six of them,
were joined with more cable to make the mat.
It took a crane to lift the thing
We had to drill into the rock,
dog-work with the pneumatic drill,
first the four-foot bit, then the six,
then the eight, grinding the hole deeper in to the rock.
You could taste the chalk of the rock dust.
We threaded sticks of dynamite
into the holes, the last one with a blasting cap
and then the frilly wires to the detonator.
The crane operator would drape the mat
over the rock like a blanket on a bed:
with the thump of the blast the mat jumped
but held down the shards and chips,
not much of a fireworks payoff after all that drilling.
But one day the foreman had to go bid a job
and we drilled and loaded the holes.
We were blasting out a foundation
for a house at the lake.
A blistering day and we’d worn
bandanas bandit-style to not breathe the dust,
and when we were ready,
we said, what the hell, no mat, forget it.
We crimped the wires to the detonator
and got behind some trees.
When it went, we heard the shrapnel
nicking the trees and one chunk
the size of suitcase hurtled
in almost slow-motion catapult
toward a sailboat moored on the lake.
A direct hit would sink the boat sure,
but it ca-choomed to the right side,
water spouting up four or five feet
and all of us releasing the breath we’d held.
A couple came from below deck,
scrambling up, waving and shouting,
and Bill, who most wanted payoff after labor,
shouted back. “Wake up. Wake the hell up.”

Three Poems by Natasha Trethewey

Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus, or The Mulata

—after the painting by Diego Velàzquez, ca. 1619

She is the vessels on the table before her: the copper pot tipped toward us, the white pitcher clutched in her hand, the black one edged in red and upside down. Bent over, she is the mortar and the pestle at rest in the mortar—still angled in its posture of use. She is the stack of bowls and the bulb of garlic beside it, the basket hung by a nail on the wall and the white cloth bundled in it, the rag in the foreground recalling her hand. She’s the stain on the wall the size of her shadow— the color of blood, the shape of a thumb. She is echo of Jesus at table, framed in the scene behind her: his white corona, her white cap. Listening, she leans into what she knows. Light falls on half her face.

—from Thrall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), reprinted with the permission of the poet


History Lesson

I am four in this photograph, standing on a wide strip of Mississippi beach, my hands on the flowered hips of a bright bikini. My toes dig in, curl around wet sand. The sun cuts the rippling Gulf in flashes with each tidal rush. Minnows dart at my feet glinting like switchblades. I am alone except for my grandmother, other side of the camera, telling me how to pose. It is 1970, two years after they opened the rest of this beach to us, forty years since the photograph where she stood on a narrow plot of sand marked colored, smiling, her hands on the flowered hips of a cotton meal-sack dress.

—from Domestic Work (Graywolf Press, 2000), reprinted with the permission of the poet


The Southern Crescent

1 In 1959 my mother is boarding a train. She is barely sixteen, her one large grip bulging with homemade dresses, whisper of crinoline and lace, her name stitched inside each one. She is leaving behind the dirt roads of Mississippi, the film of red dust around her ankles, the thin whistle of wind through the floorboards of the shotgun house, the very idea of home.

Ahead of her, days of travel, one town after the next, and California, a word she can’t stop repeating. Over and over she will practice meeting her father, imagine how he must look, how different now from the one photo she has of him. She will look at it once more, pulling into the station at Los Angeles, and then again and again on the platform, no one like him in sight.

2 The year the old Crescent makes its last run, my mother insists we ride it together. We leave Gulfport late morning, heading east. Years before, we rode together to meet another man, my father, waiting for us as our train derailed. I don’t recall how she must have held me, how her face sank as she realized, again, the uncertainty of it all—that trip, too, gone wrong. Today,

she is sure we can leave home, bound only for whatever awaits us, the sun now setting behind us, the rails humming like anticipation, the train pulling us toward the end of another day. I watch each small town pass before my window until the light goes, and the reflection of my mother’s face appears, clearer now as evening comes on, dark and certain.

—from Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006), reprinted with the permission of

the poet


By Ishle Yi Park

One day I will write a poem
about my father as a mountain,
and there will be no shame for the dynamite
and the blasted hole, the pickaxes and steam drills
paving their own resolute path,
for the railroad ploughed through his core,
for shattered rocks, for pungent scent of pines.
My father will be a mountain surrounded by wind
that wears him down as slowly as marriage,
as America, as time. But he is still
a man and a mountain: drilled, hammered, alive,
unaware of all who love him from the far track.

reprinted with the permission of the poet


Ode to the Picnic Singers
(Flushing Meadow Park, 1984)
By Ishle Yi Park

…And then at dusk the woman
climbed atop the picnic table
and belted out a Patty Kim hit,
plastic spoon a clutched mic in her fist!

And the galbi spit and bubbled dark
as azalia and crushed black diamond,
meat soy-sauced and sizzling in the July heatwaves
that hummed like the yellow frisbee flung

over tiny Youna Ean, kneeling among clover and dandelion.
Ay, the sky flapped above us like a soiled workshirt
on a clothesline while we twisted our ankles over Chinese jumprope,
then flew by on flowered banana seats, wind teasing streamers

and the black whips of our hair, past
our brothers in visors and cut-off football tanks,
lost in long switchgrass and dewy goose shit.
And our mothers raced! Piggybacking frilled babies

over grass to catch butter cookies
strung on a white finish line with their teeth,
to the slow butterfly thighs of their men.
Far from the dented Volvos and Hyundais

bereft in the parking lot, these husbands whorled and spun
like dervishes around that imported leather rugby ball
from Seoul, bathed in a halo of their own sweat
and kicked-up dirt. Our parents gathered,

shook loose the workday, their hangook tongues
like wild geese skimming over a cool lake.
They popped open barrel-shaped Budweisers
and let the foam spill over.

My father tilted the can to baby Sarah’s mouth
and laughed at her sputtering, a laughter so serious
I think I forgive him, his hungry rough cheeks stilling
to the woman’s hungry, rough songs. And Jung Yun’s uma

sang like a torn-up hymnal. She sang until we dropped
the twigs and pigeon feathers from our hands
to sit cross-legged in the nest of our mothers,
she sang like a yanked-out phonecord; shrill,

cut, ringing, 70s pop ballad fervid
with religion so unlike our Sunday falsettos,
she sang and we believed in a smaller,
gruffer, chip-toothed god: she sang the dusk down.

And we, staring up at her knees,
rested in the blue fall of each others’ shadows
while the bab and ban chan, paper plates and water coolers
were left, for once, gratefully unattended.

from Century of the Tiger, Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing (Winter 2002)

New Labor Forum 19(1): 122-123, Winter 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.191.0000018