Tramps on the road: floating clouds.
—old Chinese poem


Agriculture and Industry
Embraced in public on a wall—
Heroes in shirt-sleeves! Next to them
The average man felt small.


I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
By Vassar girls surrounded.
They harmonized expertly; oh,
Their little true hearts pounded.

Joe went on smiling.


Cold—and smoke curled up from the tubs
I thought I saw what Trotsky saw,
A friendly cossack wink; and then
His friends brought down their clubs.


The moon broke through the clouds so full
It scared the bunch of us, I swear,
Like the sudden torch of a bull.
Oh, we laughed about it afterwards.


And out of dirty fists sometimes
Would bloom the melancholy harp.
Then low-low-low in the gon-doh-lah
We swayed beneath our tarp.

And far lights moving in and out of rain.

The train had just slowed for a crossing when
Out from the shadows jumped a hundred men.
With baseball bats and iron bars
They persuaded us back onto the cars.

Cheyenne that would have been.


We read our brothers’ shirts for lice
And moved around with the fruit,
Went north to Billings for the beets
And had three good days in the jail at Butte.


We chalked our names on white cliffsides,
High up, where only eagles dwelled.
Whenever a truck went by below,
The earth trembled like a woman held.


And we passed fields of smoking stumps
Where goats sometimes or ponies grazed.
Abandoned tractors leaned against the sky
Like giant fists upraised.


But if we bent our knees it was
To drink from a creek’s rust-colored slime,
And splash our chests with it, and rub our eyes,
And wake into another world and time.


Let us go then, you and me,
While the neon bubbles upward ceaselessly
To lure us down back streets and alleyways,
Where we may wander and be lost for days,
Many hours and many days.

A cup of coffee; afterwards a hymn.


Once we stood on a high bluff,
Lights fanning out across the bay.
A little ragged band of Christs we were,
And tempted—but we turned away.


And didn’t I see you Saturday night,
After the paycheck from the mill,
Bearing a pot of store-bought lilies home,
One budding still?
Ah, oh, my banjo dog!

Donald Justice

Introduce yourself to The New Criterion for the lowest price ever—and a receive an extra issue as thanks.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 7, on page 47
Copyright © 2019 The New Criterion |