All by Robert Pinsky, 1999 Featured Poet
The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians
Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band
Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze
At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes–
The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out
Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.
A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once
He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers–
Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked
Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord. Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans
Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,
Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
To wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,
The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:
George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit
And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
Both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,
The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.
To Television, not a window on the world,
but as we call you,
terrarium of dreams and wonders,
coffer of shades,
ordained cotillion of phosphors or liquid crystal.
Tub of acquiescence, vein of defiance.
Your patron in the Pantheon would be Hermes,
quick one, little thief, escort of the dying,
and comfort of the sick.
In a blue glow my father and little sisters sat snuggled in one chair watching you.
Their wife and mother was sick in the head.
I scorned you and them, as I scorned so much.
Now I like you best in a hotel room, maybe minutes before I have to face an audience.
Behind the doors of the armoire,
box within a box,
Tom and Jerry,
or also brilliant and reassuring Oprah Winfrey.
For I watch.
I’ve watched Sid Caesar speaking French and Japanese not through knowledge but imagination,
his quickness, and thank you.
I watched live Jackie Robinson stealing home,
that image, oh, strung shell, enduring, fleeter than light,
like these words we remember in,
they too are winged at the helmet and ankles.
We adore images, we like the spectacle
Of speed and size, the working of prodigious
Systems. So on television we watched
The terrible spectacle, repetitiously gazing
Until we were sick not only of the sight
Of our prodigious systems turned against us
But of the very systems of our watching.
The date became a word, an anniversary
That we inscribed with meanings-who keep so few,
More likely to name an airport for an actor
Or athlete than “First of May”or “Fourth of July.”
In the movies we dream up, our captured heroes
Tell the interrogator their commanding officer’s name
Is Colonel Donald Duck-he writes it down, code
Of a lowbrow memory so assured it’s nearly
Aristocratic. Some say the doomed firefighters
Before they hurried into the doomed towers wrote
Their Social Security numbers on their forearms.
Easy to imagine them kidding about it a little,
As if they were filling out some workday form.
Will Rogers was a Cherokee, a survivor
Of expropriation. A roper, a card. For some,
A hero. He had turned sixteen the year
That Frederick Douglass died. Douglass was twelve
When Emily Dickinson was born. Is even Donald
Half-forgotten?-Who are the Americans, not
A people by blood or religion? As it turned out,
The donated blood not needed, except as meaning.
And on the other side that morning the guy
Who shaved off all his body hair and screamed
The name of God with his boxcutter in his hand.
O Americans- as Marianne Moore would say,
Whence is our courage? Is what holds us together
A gluttonous dreamy thriving? Whence our being?
In the dark roots of our music, impudent and profound?-
Or in the Eighteenth Century clarities
And mystic Masonic totems of the Founders:
The Eye of the Pyramid watching over us,
Hexagram of Stars protecting the Eagle’s head
From terror of pox, from plague and radiation.
And if they blow up the Statue of Liberty-
Then the survivors might likely in grief, terror
And excess build a dozen more, or produce
A catchy song about it, its meaning as beyond
Meaning as those symbols, or Ray Charles singing “America
The Beautiful.” Alabaster cities, amber waves,
Purple majesty. The back-up singers in sequins
And high heels for a performance- or in the studio
In sneakers and headphones, engineers at soundboards,
Musicians, all concentrating, faces as grave
With purpose as the harbor Statue herself.
A monosyllabic European called Sax
Invents a horn, walla whirledy wah, a kind of twisted
Brazen clarinet, but with its column of vibrating
Air shaped not in a cylinder but in a cone
Widening ever outward and bawaah spouting
Infinitely upward through an upturned
Swollen golden bell rimmed
Like a gloxinia flowering
In Sax’s Belgian imagination
And in the unfathomable matrix
Of mothers and fathers as a genius graven
Humming into the cells of the body
Or cupped in the resonating grail
Of memory changed and exchanged
As in the trading of brasses,
Pearls and ivory, calicos and slaves,
Laborers and girls, two
Cousins in a royal family
Of Niger known as the Birds or Hawks.
In Christendom one cousin’s child
Becomes a “favorite negro” ennobled
By decree of the Czar and founds
A great family, a line of generals,
Dandies and courtiers including the poet
Pushkin, killed in a duel concerning
His wife’s honor, while the other cousin sails
In the belly of a slaveship to the port
Of Baltimore where she is raped
And dies in childbirth, but the infant
Will marry a Seminole and in the next
Chorus of time their child fathers
A great Hawk or Bird, with many followers
Among them this great-grandchild of the Jewish
Manager of a Pushkin estate, blowing
His American breath out into the wiggly
Tune uncurling its triplets and sixteenths–the Ginza
Samba of breath and brass, the reed
Vibrating as a valve, the aether, the unimaginable
Wires and circuits of an ingenious box
Here in my room in this house built
A hundred years ago while I was elsewhere:
It is like falling in love, the atavistic
Imperative of some one
Voice or face–the skill, the copper filament,
The golden bellful of notes twirling through
Their invisible element from
Rio to Tokyo and back again gathering
Speed in the variations as they tunnel
The twin haunted labyrinths of stirrup
And anvil echoing here in the hearkening
Instrument of my skull.
At the bad time, nothing betrays outwardly the harsh
The studies and hospital records. Carols play.
Sitting upright in the transit system, the widowlike women
Wait, hands folded in their laps, as monumental as bread.
In the shopping center lots, lights mounted on cold
Tower and stir, condensing the blue vapour
Of the stars; between the rows of cars people in coats walk
Bundling packages in their arms or holding the hands of
Across the highway, where a town thickens by the tracks
With stores open late and creches in front of the churches.
Even in the bars a businesslike set of the face keeps off
The nostalgic pitfall of the carols, tugging. In bed,
How low and still the people lie, some awake, holding the
Consciously at bay, Oh Little Town, enveloped in unease.