Breaks

Michael McFee Click to read more...

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.

 

Discussion

One Response to Breaks

  1. Richard Atwood says:

    Cool and clear. Precise, and full of nostalgia. Makes one wonder how does a human being bear such an existence? (To write a poem? Surely, more than that.) Reminded me of a few short weeks I worked one Christmas season at a postal facility; while not working at
    a machine, one became as one, standing in one spot sorting cards and letters into the letter slots, and living for the “breaks.” Dear God, the things one must do to pay bills and provide for necessities! Enough to drive an intelligent person to suicide — . And so many people do it, day in and day out. I’ve never figured out “how.” Like being a Roman slave, a remanent of war. Well-written poem, indeed, that says something. (So many things written today, and passed off as literature… pass me off as a human being; thus I no longer think too much of “literature” as something I need to worry with, anymore. It has become like the corporate world: so much BS and bluster. At least that’s how I see most poetry in journals, these days.
    Whatever happened to the Frosts and Sandburgs? Those… were readable poets! The rest are notably lost, and will be buried forever, in mostly non-descript, non-remembered libraries.

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