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11-19-2018


Jon Tribble

Honest Labor

Meat, one of the assistant coaches called us,
prime meat, as the other guards and tackles ground 
into one another with their slow weight and push, 
our muscles straining to prove which of us would

freeze as perfect statues locked together
in a grappler's pose, others tumbling back 
like unsteady bowling pins marking the unlikely
spare. I was falling off the depth chart that autumn,

former tackle to guard to center to long snapper 
on the offensive lineman's path to the bench 
and a purple and gold letter jacket earned
for showing up and shutting up. So I punted

football after my fifteenth birthday, and the first 
job interview my father drove me to was my last, 
filling out the blanks on the form the girl in the white
and red bowl of a hat handed me and I waited

for the curly-haired manager in a crisp white shirt, 
black slacks, and black string tie to join me 
in the booth, ask me where I went to school,
if I did drugs, if I knew what honest labor was,

knew what hard work demanded and was ready 
to do it here for one dollar and sixty-five cents 
an hour since a minor like me under sixteen 
had a trial period to see if I was mature enough

to take a job seriously. He did like I played football, 
said this work involved lifting fifty pound sacks 
of flour, seventy-five pound cases of fresh chicken 
on ice, but I looked hearty enough, he said,

a big enough boy to do the job, if I showed up
at four-thirty the next day wearing jeans and good
work shoes he would have my own red-and-white-
striped shirt ready and I could clock in, watch

training films, maybe do a little dishwashing 
since I had told him of the hundreds of campers 
whose trays and glasses and silverware I washed
every weekend at the camp my father ran,

the summers I had worked each meal five days 
a week. I would start slow here, part-time, he said, 
three days a week for five-hour shifts, maybe one
weekend day if I worked out, but I shouldn't

expect much, was young and would need to prove
myself to him, to earn my wings. Two weeks later 
I got my first raise, in four weeks I was working 
twenty hours, then twenty-five, thirty, then

double shifts every weekend and earning overtime, 
opening the store those Saturday and Sunday mornings,
shutting it down, blast-washing it clean most nights
until I couldn't imagine another way to end my days. 

Electric Fire

Breading station to sink
to fryer to cooler to sink
to station to sink to fryer
and back, Andre taught me

and taught me again and again, 
his two years cooking almost 
over, full-ride scholarship 
and college ahead, my time

beginning with no future 
beyond the cash to buy a car 
when I turned sixteen in what 
seemed forever or at least

a teenager's version of 
a lifetime away, so I listened 
like someone who thought 
he knew everything and

on my first close with Dre 
I filled the Extra CrispyTM 
breading station bin with water,
a stainless steel lake of cloudy

depths murky with the day's 
dried and caked leavings, 
a gummy flotilla on the shivering 
surface rippling with every

back and forth of the motor 
shaking new white flour
powdered again by the pebbles
of fat grinding and almost sticking

on the sifting screen below.
With paint scraper and steel wool, 
I muscled and scoured until 
hard dough concrete from

the double breading for crunchy 
golden finish turned softer
papier-mâché and finally streaks
of whitewash slime I could wipe

away until the metal mirrors 
shined brilliant again, reflecting 
the same thing this night reflected
tomorrow or the next, and I was

daydreaming about gods and heroes, 
an Edith Hamilton fourth-period
quiz on Hercules, Theseus, 
and Perseus, all bastard sons

of Zeus and sure test questions,
when my fingers and hands
pricked with invisible needles 
like a thousand strands from

Medusa's hair struck all my skin
at once with serpents' fangs,
poison numbing my touch
each time the yellow rubber

gloves submerged to spin 
wider and wider circles with 
steel wool in the gray white muck.
From behind, I heard Dre order me

to freeze, stand perfectly still, 
and then I saw what he saw, 
blue sparks dripping from my
gloves to the bin of water

back up to my fingers,
a hand of light and power 
beckoning me, grasping 
for our circuit to connect,

take hold, complete the path
leading to ecstatic pain 
my nerves couldn't understand
or reject until Dre reached up

above my head to the outlet 
descending to meet the black vine 
of the breading station's heavy cord,
pulled the fat head of the plug

loose, broke the link chaining 
me to the building's cells, 
the living grid of alien current 
discharged from my soft chaos

of flesh, a creation too fragile 
to receive this blessing,
too weak to wear a garment
woven by holy fire, lucky

to survive my carelessness 
before putting on a laurel 
wreath of industrial lightning 
beyond my static human coil.

Breaking Bird

You break the thighs, that's all-
a quick snap like you imagine any bone
forced from the joint it's bedded in might give
to pull and twist and pop. The raw meat
under your fingers cool to the touch

like water in the shade of a cliff face
that never feels the sun, like moss
on the underside of a deadfall off a quiet path.
The skin thick like the tongue of a workboot-
nothing like anything once alive should feel

-sliding and sucking in the tightening grip
of your thumb. But that is last. First, there is the tail,
nub of useless stump that feathered the fat
and bony end of these inept flyers,
and you crank it once, twice, mostly never three times

till it gives way in your pinch and you toss it off
into the growing pile in the trash where these clips
of skin and bone collect, each looking like
the first joint of a fleshy thumb that's lost its nail,
naked now, unable to grasp even the smallest thing.

This Day the Lord

We gathered around locked glass doors, waiting to
start our Sunday service preparing to serve, not

with reverent hymns and desperate prayers, knowing
good news for us a one-day special coupon sale cut

fresh from the morning's heavy newspapers, promising
chicken in nine or fifteen or twenty-one pieces,

like five loaves and two fish, an endless banquet
we could feed the four thousand, five, or even more,

know the buckets would reappear again full as long as
we kept performing our rituals like we knew we

should. We were all apostates before these flames.
Eleven o'clock and we welcomed in the first wave,

herbs the incense of this perfumed air heavy with gravy
and boiling ears of corn, baked beans on the stove top,

spices peppering every sweet corner hunger can
make desire, can make fat and happy believe anything

it needs can be wrapped in wax paper, wipe grease from
finger to lips to tongue, a nation of thirsty worshipers

licking the salt until all could behold it, and it was
good. Abundance as long as the electricity stayed on.

We knew the cost of waste, the ledgers our bosses would
use as punishment if we dropped or spilled, turned

fresh into spoiled, and we feared the wrath from burning
chicken, missing the clarion of the buzzer set for thirteen,

not fourteen, minutes, potatoes drying out, cole slaw
frozen or sour, the plastic bags of rolls soggy or crispy.

It's a miracle there was any food at all those days when
the world around us was designed for every disaster, the

Colonel's face everywhere we turned, mocking us with its
secret knowledge that our faith was misplaced, our

recipe was a recipe for unpaid bills, a path to a future
that would cover us with scars and pain, the failure that

makes an apostle a heretic, takes hard work and turns
it into less than pocket change, fills the mouth with the

taste of blood and sweat, a metallic tang behind your teeth
so sharp and false, so unnatural that nothing can taste

good. Could we cash our checks and tithe ourselves?
Not for nothing, but something less and less we

chopped and peeled until the skin was either ours
or the birds', the trays and trays of a country of fowl

rolled from grease to warmer, a procession for quick feast
or ending the famine of home cooking, the clock's hands

frozen; faster than family, generations and the new hearth,
it's all television-ready and friendly, the golden crisp

chicken, the smiling counter girls and young men with 
nothing on their minds but the bright gleaming gospel of

more. Feed you, fill you, find the limit of all appetites.
And if that isn't enough, we have dessert! Chocolate

that's not chocolate, but chocolate creme, lemon creme,
the strawberry shortcake with more creme, but no

real strawberries that seem like fruit, all sweet and
good if you don't know better. There is never any

reason to leave with empty hands or stomachs wanting
more because we have it all here to satisfy and stuff

folks from city to suburbs to farm, young and old
come to our counter and receive our blessings, drive

through our convenient pick-up window and know
our generosity, the grace that will follow you to your

door. Speak clear, speak loud so we can hear you say,
"I'm ready to order. Is anyone there?" Know we are

coming, we are here, we cannot leave and are trapped
in this kitchen until the last one has ordered, when no

more customers wait for the next fryer to empty
and the next, for the coupons to expire and be no

more than tomorrow's trash, no more value than confetti 
for a forgotten parade, the betting slips for the sixth-place

Kentucky Derby finish. Give us this, freely, leave us the
fried dreams that stalk our nights, the graveyard full of

chicken. No ghost haunts quite like a skinless silent bird.
It's not forgiveness that is our bargain or our dream,

so many nights where scalding the flesh would feel
nice, if only the water could be hot enough, the heat

nice if it could boil out of each pore that smell, that chain
to the kitchen linking our bones to the birds' so we

feel, not dirty, not grimy, but seared from the inside
so the vision of our sacrifice isn't crucifixion, no

good for the world in our losses, but we feel cooked,
about to be served to something angry in its hunger,

a shadow of vengeance that will have us as its rightful
meal, and there isn't enough, never enough for that,

so we must forget it, deny there are such dreams, say
good night once the floors are cleaned, only talk

about tomorrow's day off or the day after, wonder if
Kentucky is that different from Arkansas, if everything's

fried there like most things are here, if their catfish and
hushpuppies and green tomatoes are better than their chicken.
 

 

 

-from God of the Kitchen, Glass Lyre Press 2018

PROMPT: In "Honest Labor," Tribble's speaker recalls his first job, from his interview to promotion to working overtime, the job becoming so consuming that he couldn't "imagine another way to end my days." Write your own poem about your first job, its challenges and rewards: how did it change your life? How did it change you? -by Associate Edityor Amie Whittemore
 

BIO: Jon Tribble was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. He grew up in Aldersgate Camp just outside of Little Rock (at that time), a church camp devoted to medical and social services programming. He has worked as a dishwasher, maintenance worker, fry cook, movie theater manager, data processing clerk, and night watchman, and he has lived in Arkansas, South Texas, Indiana, and Illinois. He received his B. A. in English from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and an M.A. and M.F.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, where he worked on the staff of Indiana Review on and off for five years, including a year as editor. He is author of three collections of poems: Natural State (Glass Lyre Press, 2016), And There Is Many a Good Thing (Salmon Poetry, 2017), and God of the Kitchen (Glass Lyre Press, 2018). He is the recipient of a 2003 Artist Fellowship Award in Poetry from the Illinois Arts Council and his poems have appeared in print in journals and anthologies, including Ploughshares, Alaska Quarterly Review, Poetry, Crazyhorse, Quarterly West, and The Jazz Poetry Anthologyand online at The Account, Dublin Poetry Review, The Blue Mountain Review, andstorySouth. His work was selected as the 2001 winner of the Campbell Corner Poetry Prize from Sarah Lawrence College and as a winner in the 2016 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize Competition. He is managing editor of Crab Orchard Review and series editor of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry published by SIU Press.


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