Poem: What is Work?

Poem-ScarfI was making this scarf at a poetry reading at a regular summer festival I go to in mid-July.  The crowd was pretty awesome, but I hadn’t prepared much in the way of poetry over the last year, and aside from a few pieces of OPP (Other People’s Poetry), I hadn’t performed anything at all to an audience in months.  This is one of the crowning readings of my year, and I wasn’t ready at all.

Meanwhile, I was knitting.  I was trying to remember the poem about knitting that I’d written a long time ago, figuring I could do that. I couldn’t pull that poem’s third and fourth line out of my head, though, and leaving them out would have been a drastic change.

Instead, I had to think of something else to do. Or not read.  But it was hard. My memory wasn’t working properly; I couldn’t find the poem that would speak to this moment.  And I’d been having conversations with people about work, rather than words, at this festival, and thinking about work rather than words.  All very challenging to make words while other people are talking, and saying very deep and important things that you want to listen to and understand, and when words are not foremost in your mind.

So I’d just about given up on the idea that I was going to perform anything at all.

And then I realized I’d knit just enough that I was about to run out of white yarn.  That it was time to bind off the stitch, and be finished.  And … something gelled. Something about what all the other poets had said affixed itself in my mind.  And I improvised a poem, called What is Work? that was in part based on what I’d heard other people say at the reading, and partly on what I’d talked to people about all week during the event.

This is not that poem.  But it is an attempt to get across what I was thinking and feeling that day.  Maybe it’s better than that poem, maybe it’s worse, maybe it’s not the right words now in the way that it was the right words then, while I was knitting and making [yet] a(nother) scarf.  But here’s the poem.

Words don’t matter to me much any more.
I spoke and spoke, and still I speak,
and no one listens to them, and nothing changes.
Words themselves do not alter the course of history,
nor turn the planets, nor remake the Cosmos,
not unless Work follows after.

And so I turned to Work.
Work has power: it is the heat under the alchemist’s flask,
it is the lathe spinning under the chisel,
the steel pitting under the laser,
it is the needles going clack
around the oroubouros of the yarn,
it is the whorl upon the drop spindle,
it is the skin of the sheep producing wool
it is the angel telling the grass to grow,
it is the fire of the Sun,
it is the consequence of the first Word,
Light, let there be.

Work is done one stitch at a time,
one line at a time, one bit at a time
one loop at a time.
It is the management of atoms
and the rearrangement of patterns,
it is the unweaving of stories
and the crocheting of myths,
it is the task of taking a single string of yarn
and giving it width and length,
breadth and warmth and story.

With due respect to Lyra,
Words matter when they Work,
when they set an intention
and then follow through,
mistakes and all, rough edges and
dropped stitches,
missed bolt-holes and bad angles
and all.

My friend Daniel likes to say,
build the whole prototype
because the first mistake is rarely the last.
See the work through from beginning to end,
complete the effort, learn from the errors,
and try again.  The Work is never finished,
not really, though the lead turn to
alchemists’ gold in the crucible,
though the yarn-basket be empty,
though the food be eaten and the dishes clean.

And this, dear one, is part of the meaning of Work,
that it carries on from one task to the next,
unraveling the things that do not serve the world,
re-making the broken things so that they do.

This Work is accomplished one stitch at a time,
one row at a time, one scarf at a time,
one project at a time,
one set of tools,
one set of plans,
one hand, and one heart.


So, that’s the poem.

A few words in conclusion:  Lyra, mentioned twice, had written and read an absolutely brilliant poem about the power of our words, which I hope she’ll post somewhere that I can link to it, because it deserves to be read; her partner is referenced in the line about the steel pitted by the laser near the start.  My blogging colleague Deborah Castellano’s yarn was used to make the scarf; and Daniel was sitting in the audience — he’s an accomplished poet himself.  And of course, my friend and colleague and brother Steve is now-ish wearing the scarf that is also this poem (sorta).


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