Poems for Labor Day

Poet, scholar and my mentor, Van Brock, wrote of my book Salt and Iron "every poem may be prefaced by 'Farewell to Lincoln Square,'  a poem he offers as a translation of the painting by Raphael Soyer, whose full foreground bulges with people of leisure, while Byrd, reading the painting, focuses on a small, remote man . . . ."  It makes sense that Van would see that connection in my work because I grew up in a family that was first working class and I worked and sweated with men who knew how to use tools.  I learned what it was to go home tired, sweaty and dirty . . . and then to get up the next morning and do it all again.  The title of the poem links to a youtube video of me reading the poem.  This poem originally appeared in the journal College English.

Farewell to Lincoln Square

                        after Raphael Soyer


Who is that man in the background

who bends over into nothing?

He bends to work,

running the cruel jackhammer

that will have his wife

laying hot washcloths on his back

and rubbing his shoulders with alcohol.

He breaks concrete for no good reason.

In the window behind him,

a shape—chiaroscuro—

not fully drawn, a ghost image,

looks out at him,

observes the measured jail

that work makes for him.

Or is it his angel

who looks over blue collar

and blue jeans

who is with him as he works

and when he eats pimiento loaf at noon?

I can’t see if he is sweating,

but it must be an Autumn day.

The girl in blue in the foreground

wears a sweater and a long skirt.

This is weather a working man gives thanks for:

a few degrees of coolness.

He works hard in the background.

Everyone else walks away from him.


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