Read an Excerpt
The Whole Song
By VINCENT FERRINI, Kenneth A. Warren, Fred Whitehead
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2004 Vincent Ferrini
All rights reserved.
15 years ago this city was the shoe hub of the world.
160 factories hummed a song of joy.
Jobs were so plentiful you tripped over them.
And our families had happiness.
Today the city is a graveyard of factories—
Monumental tombstones accusing with broken eyes.
A jungle of death pregnant with another life.
And we shoeworkers
Idly mushroom the union halls arguing.
Skeptical of the future, we talk of the past:
Of the crowded union meetings,
The honest speeches inspiring guts to sacrifice,
The monster demonstrations and the unbreakable strikes.
6 months ago the last giant factory
Said "Accept a 20% cut."
The Union answered "NO!"
The Boss grabbed his shop and settled out of the state
Leaving 1700 families stranded.
The Union caved in.
At dawn busses and cars carry shoeworkers to far-away open shop towns.
And we thousands remaining
Huddled in tenements
Starve in the shadows of dead factories.
These eyesores are soft and lazy
and wholly lacking in ambition.
Each morning my wife guides me
Through a black city to Union Street.
I tune my old violin and my wife
Returns home with the case.
My tapping stick is my eyes.
I play and sing to the people buzzing and bumping into me.
I love my clay pipe.
Every hour I shake my tin can to hear
If we'll have enough to eat.
It rains and I sing by a doorway.
The look in my eyes begging is an unknown story.
Mid-afternoon and the tinkle of one nickel.
Dupont gave me
The only hundred dollars I ever had
When I lost my eyes mixing paints for him.
My face pleading these many years is a sculptured torture.
The hot sun is like my wife's love.
My voice tires and I play a jig.
The dust of the street fills the wrinkles in my cheeks.
Why don't those other beggars die?
They'll only queer my territory.
Day after day I strain to hear a tinkle.
All they see is blotches of blood on the face I shaved at
And holes in my pants.
Saturday music of dimes, pennies and nickels
Dropping in my tin can
Is the only happiness I know. The snow and ice and whipping wind
Freeze my feet, my fingers, and my voice
And I am a corpse with a can on my chest.
When the streets quiet and death
Is punctured by the click of shoes
And ripped by the swish of automobiles
My wife comes to take me home.
Never wears a hat.
Fishscaled with money,
He talks to Christ
Because he's scared of death.
Taxis drive him to Mass at 6 o'clock each morning.
Beads and medals
Protect his chest.
Takes mumbo jumbo notes at football games
He doesn't understand.
And walks the streets praying for the next life.
Everything his protean brain touches he breathes to life.
Rooted in the revolution of 1776.
Palms calloused by pick and shovel
On the pulse of the people
Are fists full of liberty.
Poetry spills from his lips
And his consciousness is a sleepless eye.
When he imitates people your stomach knots with laughter.
His criticisms cut the legs under you.
Hammers the time as it happens into songs for workers' ears.
Old clothes need him.
His head is a faun's.
Friend to square pegs in round holes.
Honest as the sting of truth
And suffers for it.
In his house there is free speech.
Wherever he is the air blossoms,
Exciting you with a drama of stories,
Unending jokes and anecdotes.
His rooms are splashed with paintings.
You are reborn when you hear him freeing music
And around his fireplace you chew a bit of greatness.
With him you become an explorer,
The dormant universe electrified within you.
His blood throbs with the untaught American past,
Bringing it back to the people.
A 10 cent wedding ring tied the nuptial knot.
Their bed is the Welfare
And their rooms rest on quicksand.
Her hatchet nose defies all enemies
And eyes spit fire,
Blunt as a sledge blow on fingers.
Organizes mothers on her street to strike for low rent,
And committees to cut the price of milk and bread;
They never knew how before and it works,
And they love her for it.
Visits them bringing gifts of leaflets and pamphlets with answers.
She sails into offices of the Powers That Be
And rocks the roof of their smugness.
Get smart with her and your head's in pincers.
Quickest time to get results is a straight line of attack.
Persistent as a flood,
Her words and manners punch you in the nose.
Offers no excuse
And changes her tactics. Loses herself and evolves
New ways of living.
Loving this life fiercely for what it must become.
Weaving the silk of his life in the cocoon of the Catholic Church
Nothing troubled him.
Then what the priests feared happened:
Coiled in the net of thinking people
The lightning of analysis pierced the fog of his brain
With reverberations of pelting doubt
And he became Columbus.
Consumed leaflets, pamphlets and fireside chats
And came back for more.
Stopped going to church.
Sailing in an uncharted ocean
He pocketed pearls of thought.
Saw why things happen as they do.
Reserves fell one by one.
He bubbled into a strange happiness
And finally landed at the shores of the USSR.
His soul having broken through the prison of his old life
A new self throbs in his heart and he is afraid.
His bridges are burned.
His nights are a battle of fear, sweat and struggle
In a torture of indecision.
Sunsets splash blood in our broken eyes
And the moon splinters.
Dead, we are huge and ugly
With derelict canyons between.
Our floors empty as Sunday,
Abandoned by the Bosses
And a few abusing us.
Our skeleton teeth locked on the sky.
It is not our fault you starve
Idle without purpose.
Workers, resurrect us—
Put life back into our hollow bodies!
Let us breathe again
And the word "fired" be a nightmare that died with the past
And for the first time own your jobs!
The Union to operate us for the good of the people
And the profits divided among you
To build a city of love!
Fill us with the bubble of bustle:
Your tools clicking a chorus of work
Stitching leather into shoes for the feet of the people,
Laughter splitting the air!
Human voices warm with intimate happiness
Exciting our veins and arteries and cold floors!
We'll feel we are wanted!
We'll drink your singing at the machines,
Wait for your coming daily!
And glow with the jagged electricity of seasonal picnics!
We won't hurt you with accidents!
No more speed-up torturing the nerves and the bottled anger!
And no Bosses cracking the whip of low prices!
Patch us up and air-condition our lungs!
Shoes you make will be your own
And you'll love them like works of beauty!
And the reality of the 5 hour day!
Invented machines ending drudgery
And pouring leisure into your laps!
And the wages will buy you your own homes!
Your example will be a fuse leading to coffin cities and ghost towns,
Igniting the people to possession—to free America!
Think! Believe it!
You've got nothing to lose but your poverty
And the creative life that should be yours will begin!
Time rots us and buries you.
O workers, we are yours for the taking.
For what are you waiting?
Fluoroscope of Evening
Telephone wires are secret
The streets dry rivers
A few old men support the corners
And taverns have the look of deserted women
The newsboy's voice is a lunatic
screeching against the stars
The ice-cream parlor has one light on
The lampposts have bandages on their eyes
No automobile horn calls for a girl
Poolroom tables are half awake
Those not out are sleeping for the
next day's work
Some windows tell you how it is
You never noticed so many strangers before
They have all gone but the memory
The city is a ghost house with many corridors.
Workshops in Labor
Who what who what who what mmmmm what sings the boring mill
Sput sput sput drrrrr the pneumatic drill
Shattering nerves and losing clothes
Swish wish swish ssss quick brush off of the air hose
The hammers on steel ring Independence bells
Mee ow mee ow mee ow
Ah Ooooo Ah ooooo and the yells
Of the workers' eyes caressing the girls
zzzzzzz of the lathe shedding curls
Thud thud thud of stock
Sudden machine burst and the shock
Telephones rattle persistent as babies bawling
Steam pipes are express trains mauling
Metal sheets clang
Presses click and bang bang
Fingers in motors drone
And belts moan
Boilers quaking ears
Caskets of casings like biers
Fog horn mooing for help
And sprinkler showering the hollow of rubber kelp
Gears are wailing women at a funeral
Stab of the lunch whistles stall the tempo
Immediately the grind wheels race on a dry track
And machine guns crack
At every minute
The hum is a front at the rear and we're in it
Signals exploding blood cells
Electric saws in aluminum splitting atoms of the air
Hornet buzz of coils and care
Heels and mallets pound foundry soot soft as moonlight
Coal smudges on bodies spoon bright
Blue pain of the acetylene torch tearing the flesh.
The hands whiz like flies in a mesh
Castings thrown in basins like breaking bottles
The blast of furnace throttles
Ovens with hot angry tongues of the captured sun
Zoom at goggles and sweat and everyone
A perpetual feud or a grudge
Like the rumpus after the sentence of a judge
Sandpapers scratch the brain
Jokes grow like grain bring thunder and hidden rain
Workers are metronomes almost without breath
And if machines stop the silence is death
The City with Empty Closets
The sidewalks are the ribs of a skeleton
A new people are everywhere
The shadow of the bridge lengthens
And a crow stabs at the autumn twilight
The Security Trust is a closed temple
Movies gulp women
A chill wind and the streets become alien
The tide is full with the unknown future
Dried blood of leaves are the nails of dogs running on concrete.
The draft has picked the city clean as a chicken bone.
Letter to My Brother
The umbilical cord connects us both to Ma and America
The front your bayonet sticks into is secret
And what you suffer are pins in my imagination
As my fingers sharpen the animus of superchargers.
Like fanatics the others sweat the machines
Silent with the same thoughts
Or probably scarred.
Weeks melt into months
And the months are moving in the second year
And for you too it is a long time
Must we wait till their gun butts break down our doors
Lindo there are enemies in our midst
Their paws on the buttons of power
With monkeywrenches in production and unity
Plotting against you and the common people
O let them beware the whirlwinds of our anger
Lindo let hate be your science
And spit at the gargoyles of danger
Those who reach us with their eggs
Like gnarled trees
We'll thrust our hands into the sky
And bash their pregnant bodies together
For the weapons we send you
And your bayonet
Will anneal the People's Revolutions
And you come back to a country where Ma and our kids won't ever go to the
Insects with antlers
And iron shoes
Their eyes peer out of asbestos boxes
Pushing 2 ton stock
Red as sunrise
Out of yellow volcanoes of furnaces
To be cut and shaped by 9 ton electric hammers
Looking alike with dirt and oil
And the women in amber rooms polishing cutting filing
And the fussy jobs of grinders at the edge of the storm
Look how they feed the hot metal into mighty intestines
Pounding them into moulds
In a shower of stars
And lightning and the strength and secrets of the universe!
Like gods at the bins of forges
Wetting the birdfeet with swab
By the trigger thud thud thud thud
O workers nothing is impossible for you
Pounders of the tongues of ships
The guts of holocaust!
Unconscious O workers of your genius
And now wielding your power and grasp like giants!
Energies paid by War
Why have you never worked like this in Peace time?
Termites in the Floor
They pick on him as if at the drying scab of a sore
Monday morning they stick on his back
I Am A Jerk
They know he is sensitive as a cloud
He doesn't agree with them
Or talk their language
On winter days open the window on his neck
He is slight and his chest fertilizes pneumonia
O if my father had trained me to use my fists
Sweat beads his forehead
And his heart churns hatred
Someone stole a wrench from Joe's tool kit
And the owner blames him
If he broke someone's face
They would respect him
But he's not built that way
One day they shoved him in a box and nailed the top on
And his head boiled for weeks and is still seething
If only his thoughts could become poisoned arrows
Or his body a stick of dynamite
He'd invite them to a feast and then light the powder,
The Japanese attack California
And his brother fights them on the Solomons,
They gave him a week or two
And then they paint the seat behind him.
This never happened before
Slowly his heart turns to ice
His mouth has lost the strength for words
And work is a bitter pill
He swallows every day in order to live
There are enemy agents here
"Go on he can't take it."
Excerpted from The Whole Song by VINCENT FERRINI. Copyright © 2004 by Vincent Ferrini. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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