the shipfitter’s wife :: dorianne laux


I loved him most
when he came home from work,
his fingers still curled from fitting pipe,
his denim shirt ringed with sweat
and smelling of salt, the drying weeds
of the ocean. I’d go to where he sat
on the edge of the bed, his forehead
anointed with grease, his cracked hands
jammed between his thighs, and unlace
the steel-toed boots, stroke his ankles
and calves, the pads and bones of his feet.
Then I’d open his clothes and take
the whole day inside me — the ship’s
gray sides, the miles of copper pipe,
the voice of the foreman clanging
off the hull’s silver ribs. Spark of lead
kissing metal. The clamp, the winch,
the white fire of the torch, the whistle,
and the long drive home.

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Every semester, my students read a book of poems, choose one to memorize and recite to the class, and complete the project by making a broadside (a visual representation) of the poem. This semester, one of my students read Joseph Millar’s, Overtime and chose the poem “Strider” to memorize.

Early each morning Jimmy ran
through the East Cleveland projects
over broken glass
past the wrecked stores and buildings
where the welfare families lay, folding their bodies
deep into the gasses and haze
rising like sleep from the city.

He came charging up Euclid Avenue
on fifty year-old legs,
Afro streaked with gray,
past the Opera, past 150th Street
breathing after fourteen miles in steady bursts.

No voices urged him on and no one waited at the finish
except for the gashed Chevrolet by the curb
spewing upholstery ticking
or the Arab at the Convenient Market
who never gave credit to anybody.
He couldn’t see the smokestack
far below by the black river
that burned like a torch through the dawn.

My student, Allen, recited the poem beautifully, then pulled from his backpack a pair of huge white tennis shoes, maybe a size fifteen, on which, in indelible ink, he had written the poem. They were passed around the classroom, tied together by the shoelaces. One student asked why the shoes were so large. Allen said, “So I could get the whole poem on them”. After the presentation, Allen gave me the shoes to give to Joe.

Joe loved them, and decided right then to send them to his friend Jimmy, the runner in the poem, who now lives in Petaluma, California. They’ve known each other for fifty-four years, since they were high school freshmen. Jimmy loved them. Jimmy tutors a sixteen year-old kid in Oakland who is six foot five, so you can imagine the size of his dogs! Jimmy brought the shoes in with him to see if they would fit. They did, and the kid loved them. So now, very tall a kid in Oakland, California is wearing these shoes. And that, my friends, is how poetry works!Image