Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, STEEL, by JOSEPH AUSLANDER



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STEEL, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: This man is dead
Last Line: Is now quite definitely said.
Subject(s): Death; Steel; Suicide; Dead, The


I
THIS man is dead.
Everything you can say
Is now quite definitely said:
This man held up his head
And had his day,
Then turned his head a little to one way
And slept instead.

Young horses give up their pride:
You break them in
By brief metallic discipline
And something else beside. . . .
So this man died.

While he lived I did not know
This man; I never heard
His name. Now that he lies as though
He were remembering some word
He had forgotten yesterday or so,
It seems a bit absurd
That his blank lids and matted hair should grow
Suddenly familiar. . . . Let him be interred.

Steady now. . . . That was his wife
Making that small queer inarticulate sound
Like a knife;
Steady there. . . . Let him slip easy into the ground;
Do not look at her,
She is fighting for breath. . . .
She is a foreigner. . . . .
Polak . . . like him . . . she cannot understand. . . .
It is hard. . . . Leave her alone with death
And a shovelful of sand.

"O the pity of it, the pity of it, Iago!". . .
Christ, what a hell
Is packed into that line! Each syllable
Bleeds when you say it. . . . No matter: Chicago
Is a far cry from Cracow;
And anyhow

What have Poles
To do with such extraneous things as hearts and souls?

There is nothing here to beat the breast over,
Nothing to relish the curious,
Not a smell of the romantic; this fellow
Was hardly your yearning lover
Frustrated; no punchinello;
But just a hunky in a steel mill. Why then fuss
Because his heavy Slavic face went yellow
With the roaring furnace dust? Now that he is in
The cool sweet crush of dirt, to hell with your sobbing
violin,
Your sanctimonious 'cello!
Let the mill bellow!

II
If you have ever had to do with steel:
The open-hearth, the blooming-mill, the cranes
Howling under a fifty-ton load, trains
Yowling in the black pits where you reel
Groggily across a sluice of orange fire, a sheet
Tongued from the conduits that bubble blue green; if
Ever you have got a single whiff
Out of the Bessemer's belly, felt the drag
And drip and curdle of steel spit hissing against hot slag;
If ever you have had to eat
One hundred and thirty degrees of solid heat,
Then screwed the hose to the spigot, drowned in steam,
Darted back when the rods kicked up a stream
Of fluid steel and had to duck the ladle that slobbered
over, and scream
Your throat raw to get your Goddam! through --
Then I am talking to you.

Steve did that for ten years with quiet eyes,
And body down to the belt caked wet
With hardening cinder splash and stiffening sweat
And whatever else there is that clots and never utterly
dries.
He packed the mud and dolomite, made back-wall,
Herded the heat, and placed his throw in tall
Terrible arcs behind smoked glasses, and watched it fall
Heavy and straight and true,
While the blower kept the gas at a growl and the brew
Yelled red and the melter hollered "Heow!" and you
raveled
Her out and the thick soup gargled and you traveled
Like the devil to get out from under. . . . Well, Steve
For ten years of abdominal heft and heave
Worked steel. So much for that. And after
Ten years of night shifts, fourteen hours each,
The Bessemers burn your nerves up, bleach
Rebellion out of your bones; and laughter
Sucked clean out of your guts becomes
More dead than yesterday's feet moving to yesterday's
drums. . . .
And so they called him "Dummy." The whole gang
From pit boss down to the last mud-slinger cursed
And squirted tobacco juice in a hot and mixed harangue
Of Slovene, Serb, Dutch, Dago, Russian, and --
worst --
English as hard and toothless as a skull.
And Steve stared straight ahead of him and his eyes
were dull.

Anna was Steve's little woman
Who labored bitterly enough,
Making children of stern and tragic stuff
And a rapture that was hammered rough,
Spilling steel into their spines, yet keeping them wistful
and human. . . .
Anna had her work to do
With cooking and cleaning
And washing the window curtains white as new,
Washing them till they wore through:
For her the white curtains had a meaning --
And starching them white against the savage will
Of the grim dust belching incessantly out of the mill;
Soaking and scrubbing and ironing against that gritty
reek
Until her head swam and her knees went weak
And she could hardly speak.
A terrible unbeaten purpose persisted:
Color crying against a colorless world!
White against black at the windows flung up, unfurled!
Candles and candle light!
The flags of a lonely little woman twisted
Out of her hunger for cool clean beauty, her hunger for
white! --
These were her banners and this was her fight!

No matter how tired she was, however she would ache
In every nerve, she must boil the meat and bake
The bread, and the curtains must go up white -- for
Steve's sake!
One thing was certain:
That John and Stanley and Helen and Mary and the
baby Steven
Must be kept out of the mills and the mill life, even
If it meant that her man and she would break
Under the brunt of it: she had talked it through with
him
A hundred times. . . . Let her eyeballs split, her head
swim --
The window must have its curtain!


III
Lately Steve had stopped talking altogether
When he slumped in with his dinner pail and heavily
Hunched over his food.
So Anna and the children let him be;
She was afraid to ask him why or whether
As he sat with his eyes glued
On vacancy.
So Anna and the children let him brood.
Only sometimes he would suddenly look at them and her
In a ghastly fixed blur
Till a vast nausea of terror and compassion stood
Blundering in her heart and swarming in her blood --
And she shivered and knew somehow that it was not
good.

And then it happened: Spring had come
Like the silver needle-note of a fife,
Like a white plume and a green lance and a glittering
knife
And a jubilant drum.
But Steve did not hear the earth hum:
Under the earth he could feel merely the fever
And the shock of roots of steel forever;
April had no business with the pit
Or the people -- call them people -- who breathed in it.
The mill was Steve's huge harlot and his head
Lay between breasts of steel on a steel bed,
Locked in a steel sleep and his hands were riveted.

IV
And then it happened: nobody could tell whose
Fault it was, but a torrent of steel broke loose,
Trapped twenty men in the hot frothy mess. . . .
After a week, more or less,
The company, with appropriate finesse,
Having allowed the families time to move,
Expressed a swift proprietary love
By shoving the dump of metal and flesh and shoes
And cotton and cloth and felt
Back in the furnace to remelt.
And that was all, though a dispatch so neat,
So wholly admirable, so totally sweet,
Could not but stick in Steve's dulled brain.
And whether it was the stink or the noise or just plain
Inertia combined with heat,
Steve, one forenoon, on stark deliberate feet,
Let the charging-machine's long iron finger beat
The side of his skull in. . . . There was no pain.

For one fierce instant of unconsciousness
Steve tasted the incalculable caress;
For one entire day he slept between
Sheets that were white and cool, embalmed and clean;
For twenty-four hours he touched the hair of death,
Ran his fingers through it, and it was a deep dark
green --
And he held his breath.

This man is dead.
Everything you can say
Is now quite definitely said.




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