lance newman

Joe Hill's Ghost in Mexican Hat


Draw off in some shade, a roadside

hardpan.  Retch.  So a breeze won't blow.

So flatten on shale and ride out

tourists, chicken-trucks, and locals.

Keep quiet till the semi spouting

smoke and wheat straw leaves at first light.


So your life broke down in Aztec.

So these cliffs look raised on high last

week and tag you for dried and lost.

There's strong comfort in rocks.  You'll know

you're wrong to play dead when wind silts

your swale deep in forgotten dust.


When old Jensen rattles in from Bluff

at dawn, as sure as a ten-year

crow to snowkill, he'll load his battered

Chevrolet with cans and stovewood.

He shakes like a hitch sitting loose

on the ball, but built his wife's house.


He'll sing you that old campfire song--

How everyone walked down ice, built

skyscrapers in the dripping woods.

The bandits scattered to Aztlan,

watered this tall red place with dust.

How the Dine stopped in and stayed.


The priests kneeled Acoma and Taos

down to smiling infant Jesus,

saved by sharp steel in adobe

cathedrals.  They hauled daughters home,

tied them tight with buttons and prayers,

scrubbed their faces white as Mary.


Women poured last baskets of spring

water on corn and packed their green

children in mud with hard peaches

to wait out years of flood and plague.

Their knives scraped floors clean as pages

but the priests brought cannon to stay.


How whites, broke and lost, took the hills,

eating fine horses.  Carson lied,

shot vagrant reds and nortenos,

turned sheep loose in the ejido.

They drank rivers and stripped good dirt

bare. The people forgot their names.


Then we brawling stiffs rose like spring

midges in clouds.  We stuck in men's

eyes fast as power rises from scales

of rates and charges.  We hauled pails

field to silo for shit wages,

scrambling due west from lies and rage.


Penny-counting eastern bankers                       

sent out tubercular daughters,

capital, maps, Pinkerton men,

gatling guns, sawmills, cameras.

They winched us down holes and shot us

dead when we marched out singing songs.


I came over to cracking heels,

flaky yellow skin and ulcers.

I ditched peach orchards in the hail,

set beams and joists with grandpas shipped

from Dublin, Oslo, Warsaw, Bonn,

but never made my own old age.


This corded hand saw no wasting,

hammered to the end.  That soldered

welt, a saw tore in.  I've wondered

how you lapdogs face your mothers

when you just drink for lost loves, year

after year of slovenly hours.


You nail doors and love salvation.

Your children sober young.  Migraines

knock you down in the rain and tides

mock your new wives.  Really, you fade.

Even lies go suddenly tame

in houses too short or narrow. 


You boast of the climate, good deals

and lively nights. Try a new dance. 

Sated and tied in a sour shirt,

you entrance no girls.  They're laughing

lightly at grain and alfalfa. 

Nice girls need rain and revival. 


Mine said, Joe, you leave everything:

beds, paper, houses, ink, showers. 

I said a bowl of nothing can't

keep a wife and I can serve no

dinners.  Rates rise yearly.  After

no young, what were my notes and aims.


Slow towns let any huckster stay,

trying out fires, chants, night marches,

but dances invite no sorghum. 

I mean, prayers offer failure.  Say,

we'll find some loving face, enter

Canaan hauling nails and lumber. 


She said, no calm preacher looks for

quick beauties. He'll say thanks and wash

his creased hands.  She wanted ivy.

But any house soon levels love

and fences give poor orders.  No

altar can erase the traces.


I named my trade. I etched hinges.

Rafters I drove home still teach boys:

timbers earn your time.  Love onions,

oaks, and asters.  Deny mothers,

every wrong they've done in anger.

Bevel your edges. Share your corn.


I want rage, or a brown cowl.  No,

no ancient men or nails.  Those pale

bastards left us rags, let us sour

like green wounds on a browned and roweled

carcass.  Why, those crawling fathers

tossed us like liver to starved hounds. 


We're laying down our snowy lives

in cracked red rock just out of town.

After humping box to brothers' strikes,

after good deals made, we're holding

our guts like tired dancers.  Crate our

dusty bodies and truck us home. 


Sew my cowl and I'll sit trances.

No, those rich dogs can lick blue prayers

right out of your sinking soul.  No,

in our nation of pink-skinned friars,

some growls outweigh our unsung trials.

Hang up your beads and call a mob.


No one's home at God's house, thank God.

He'd boot us into thundery gales,

so sit down by the fire.  Listen,

the wind's an organ in the pines

they hung us from.  Eat up, join in,

we bums croak hymns to fried red steak.


I want our songs loud, and driving

easy.  Tinker with my engine.

Wind's free and our wind'll outrace

ragged hounds.  Dig your lungs in deep

against the hill and brace for snow

till our mad songs break loose red earth.


«±  ±»

Joe Hill came to the US from his native Sweden in 1902. He worked as a longshoreman, farm laborer, and organizer for the one big union, the Industrial Worker's of the World. A series of his songs appeared in the IWW Songbook in 1911. Many are still sung today, including "Casey Jones" and "The Rebel Girl." In 1914, Joe was railroaded for the murder of a Salt Lake City grocer. On November 18, 1915, he sent a telegram from prison to IWW secretary Big Bill Haywood: "Don't waste any time in mourning -- organize!" He was executed by firing squad four days later. Joe's ashes were sent to workers in countries around the world and in every U.S. state except Utah. They were scattered on May Day 1916. Two decades later, during the Great Depression, Joe was immortalized by Alfred Hayes in the song, "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," performed most famously by Paul Robeson, the great singer and civil rights activist.
lance newman's poems have appeared in nthposition, Fringe, Pemmican, XCP: Streetnotes, Beloit Poetry Journal, Blue Collar Review, Poets Against the War, Negative Images, New Collage, and Perigee, as well as in two anthologies: American Sports Poems, edited by May Swenson, and Sunshine/Noir, edited by Jim Miller. Newman teaches American Literature and Creative Writing at California State University at San Marcos. He has also worked for fifteen years as a guide on the Colorado and Green Rivers in southeastern Utah and the Grand Canyon.




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