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American Life in Poetry

In this poem by western New Yorker Judith Slater, we’re delivered to a location infamous for brewing American stories — a bar. Like the story of Paul Bunyan, tales of work can be extraordinary, heroic and, if sad, sometimes leavened by a little light.

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’s poem appeared in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 78, No. 3, Fall 2004. Poem copyright 2004, 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.

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