Poets of CUNY sing of labor
In the Great Hall of the Cooper Union on March 20, the PSC hosted “CUNY Writers Against Austerity: A Reading in Defense of CUNY,” an event organized by Kimiko Hahn of Queens College. Here we present the poems of six of the reading’s 50 presenters. Reprising the bookending poets of that day, we open Clarion's presentation with the poem read by Hahn, and close with the piece read by former US poet laureate Billy Collins of Lehman College.
By KIMIKO HAHN
Distinguished Professor, Department of English, Queens College
November 11th, 1919. In Centralia, Washington, the air
smells both cold and sweet with sap
and the sweat of a hundred Wobbly lumberjacks—
broken and arrested
for conspiring for safety in the mills
unlike Jake, his arm sawed off, or Billy
fallen in the swollen water
and found two days later
but for his amazing goddamn suspenders.
The air smells of coffee too,
the acid of it. You know what
that friggin’ coroner wrote
about me? After I shot out of
what was left of the IWW office, after the Legionnaires
tied me to the back of a car,
dragged me over the mud roads we have up here,
hanged me from a telephone pole a couple hours—
yeah, yeah by my neck
and still I wasn’t dead—
the cops saved me for jail
so the mob could cut off my balls
hang me from the bridge this time then dump me
into the Skookumchuck River’s elegiac currents.
I was dead then, you bet.
The coroner, as I was saying, declared my death
a suicide: that I had jumped off the bridge
then shot myself full of holes.
That was the end of the Wobblies in Centralia.
But we’ll be back in another form—
cause employers can never afford to pay labor
without keeping some unsafe somewhere or some workers
unemployed somewhere else—
keep us off balance and scared of shivering babies.
Funny—it was Eleanor Roosevelt
who said the only way to get rid of revolutionaries
was to get rid of poverty.
But not half as smart as one who is hungry.
First published in VOLATILE, Hanging Loose Press, 1999
CUNY Writers Reading Against Austerity
for Linsey Abrams
By MICHELLE YASMINE VALLADARES
MFA Lecturer, Department of English, City College of New York
The death of Naná Vasconcelos and the silence
of his berimbau and drums is connected
to the increase in class sizes and cuts to adjuncts
to my Portuguese Podengo Pequeno attacking a Pekinese is connected
to seeds turning into cherry blossom trees
to karma’s cause and effect is connected
to a governor who cuts funding for students most in need
to bees dying and glaciers melting is connected
to what matters, Black Lives and the end of violence
to the still and clear minds of meditators who imagine peace is connected
to the poaching of elephants, to rainforests, rivers and oceans
and the murder of Berta Cáceres in Honduras is connected
to the air you breathe and the air I breathe
to the wars our tax dollars support is connected
to the mantra for the politician who asked—Todos Somos Mexicanos
to the rights of women and girls is connected
to the yoga that opens the heart chakra, to the lead in Flint and Newark schools
to the summer I saw wild horses run on Pismo Beach is connected
to the rainmaker who breaks the drought in the village
to the wine and bread we’ll share this evening, Salut! is connected
to inter: prefix meaning between, among. We are interconnected—
our happiness and suffering, ancient wisdom, white tigers and this earth.
By MARGUERITE MARÍA RIVAS
Associate Professor, English Department, Borough of Manhattan Community College
Daughters, when you lie awake wishing for sleep,
do you hear the scuff of the wash bucket,
slap of mop, drip of gray water
and know that when she scrubs the kitchen floor
your mother sees your future, our futures
beyond this worn linoleum?
She blesses herself with hands, cracked and bleached,
kneels and murmurs a benediction over your narrow beds,
then places her calloused palms upon your backs
feels for an adagio of your breathing
rising with the pulsing of her hopeful heart.
By ROGER SEDARAT
Associate Professor, Department of English, Queens College
Dear authors of the world, unite for labor!
Your work’s important when you write for labor.
Lack of a contract and a living wage:
Two of the wrongs they need to right for labor.
The perks of power seized by management
Historically have been denied for labor.
While theories of a trickle down might work
For one percenters, they’re not quite right for labor.
Why not appropriate an ad campaign?
Let’s ask Lebron to drink a Sprite for labor.
So many workers in the top ten list
Of toughest U.S. jobs died for labor.
Please spare us your “ideals” Republicans.
Your grandest rhetoric sounds trite for labor.
Awakened by his nightmare, the governor
Was haunted by what he denied for labor.
Let’s build a wall near Mexico with names
Of everyone who came and died for labor.
Call me romantic, but I have to believe
Neruda actually cried for labor.
Grow tall trees all around the poultry plant.
America reserves such blights for labor.
¿Caesar Chavez, dónde estás? Patrons
Insist on stealing fruit turned ripe from labor.
Just as so many birds made one simurgh,
Our voices here have unified for labor.
Author’s note: A simurgh is a mythical bird comprising 30 individual birds flying as one flock in the classical Persian poet Attar’s Conference of the Birds.
By BILLY COLLINS
Distinguished Professor, Lehman College, US Poet Laureate, 2001- 2003
Glancing over my shoulder at the past,
I realize the number of students I have taught
is enough to populate a small town.
I can see it nestled in a paper landscape,
chalk dust flurrying down in winter,
nights dark as a blackboard.
The population ages but never graduates.
On hot afternoons they sweat the final in the park
and when it’s cold they shiver around the stoves
reading disorganized essays out loud.
A bell rings on the hour and everybody zigzags
in the streets with their books.
I forgot all their last names first and their
first names last in alphabetical order.
But the boy who always had his hand up
is an alderman and owns the haberdashery.
The girl who signed her papers in lipstick
leans against the drugstore, smoking,
brushing her hair like a machine.
Their grades are sewn into their clothes
like references to Hawthorne.
The A’s stroll along with other A’s.
The D’s honk whenever they pass another D.
All the creative writing students recline
on the courthouse lawn and play the lute.
Wherever they go, they form a big circle.
Needless to say, I am the mayor.
I live in the white colonial at Maple and Main.
I rarely leave the house. The car deflates
in the driveway. Vines twirl around the porchswing.
Once in a while a student knocks on the door
with a term paper fifteen years late
or a question about Yeats or double-spacing.
And sometimes one will appear in a window pane
to watch me lecturing the wall paper,
quizzing the chandelier, reprimanding the air.