Michael McFee’s new book of poetry, his eighth full-length collection, is That Was Oasis (Carnegie Mellon University Press, January 2012). Other recent publications include a chapbook of one-line poems, The Smallest Talk (Bull City Press, 2007), and a collection of prose, The Napkin Manuscripts: Selected Essays and an Interview (University of Tennessee Press, 2006). He has taught in the Creative Writing Program UNC-Chapel Hill for several decades.
Work was something we did between breaks, those fifteen-minute vacations twice a shift
when we stopped stomping the wide foot pedals that sent our massive machines into their cycles
of bending or pressing or welding or trimming
the steel pipes that required quick human hands
to position and turn and lift and package them
in that long-gone auto parts plant in Arden.
We’d hustle down the narrow concrete aisles
to a low room under the bosses’ platform
where the machines we really wanted to touch
were waiting, humming quietly, glowing—
the ones that wouldn’t slice or crush our fingers,
the ones that gave us drinks and snacks and smokes
in exchange for the warm coins in our pockets,
the silver circles dirtied by our touch.
Lunch was a longer breather halfway home
when most of us drifted outside to eat,
away from the heat and din and oily stink,
but it was the other breaks that kept us going:
those quarter-hours included our walking time
to and from that official Concession Area,
even if it took seven minutes each way
and only left us sixty frantic seconds
to gulp a coke and choke down a few nabs
and take some puffs on a fresh cigarette
before grinding it out and heading back
to our distant stations in that factory,
fueled for the next few hours of doing
the same job our mindless bodies always did,
resuming the manufacture of tailpipes
designed to fit under machines like the ones
we drove to work that and every other day,
already looking forward to our first break.