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.|