Learning to Write

I am holding something too big in my hand,
a stick, a fat finger, six fingers instead of five.
My eyes trace, then my fist, the force that moves
down from the white letters on the blackboard,
to march   A    a    B    b   onto the page in front of me.

How I love that broad untouched expanse, how
it fades into distance when the letters spread their legs
and straddle its surface. Now the letters are mine,
yet they still sit above, staring down, elbows akimbo,
as we copy the morning’s lesson: September 12, 1952.

Time divided into days, and my life into years
as I wrote. But what I loved first was the flecked blank
paper, the bound tablet like a book waiting to be
filled, like a basket, a bucket, a grocery bag.
The book of pages waiting to be turned,
an airplane propeller, an album of old photographs,
an empty field, unplowed ground, waiting for my hand.

© Minnie Bruce Pratt, this poem appeared in "The Dirt She Ate."


Rush hour, and the short order cooks lob breakfast
sandwiches, silverfoil softballs, up and down the line.
We stand until someone says, Yes? The next person behind
breathes hungrily. The cashier's hands never stop. He shouts:
Where's my double double?  We help. We eliminate all verbs.
The superfluous  want, need, give  they already know. Nothing's left
but stay or go, and a few things like bread. No one can stay long,
not even the brown stolid man in blue-hooded sweats, head down, eating,
his work boots powdered with cement dust like snow that never melts.

© Minnie Bruce Pratt, this poem appeared in "The Dirt She Ate."


Cutting Hair

She pays attention to the hair, not her fingers, and cuts herself
once or twice a day. Doesn't notice anymore, just if the blood
starts flowing. Says, Excuse me, to the customer and walks away
for a band-aid. Same spot on the middle finger over and over,
raised like a callus. Also the nicks where she snips between
her fingers, the torn webbing. Also spider veins on her legs now,
so ugly, though she sits in a chair for half each cut, rolls around
from side to side. At night in the winter she sleeps in white
cotton gloves, neosporin on the cuts, vitamin E, then heavy
lotion. All night, for weeks, her white hands lie clothed like
those of a young girl going to her first party. Sleeping alone,
she opens and closes her long scissors and the hair falls under
her hands. It's a good living, kind of like an undertaker,
the people keep coming, and the hair, shoulder length, french
twist, braids. Someone has to cut it. At the end she whisks
and talcums my neck. Only then can I bend and see my hair,
how it covers the floor, curls and clippings of brown and silver,
how it shines like a field of scythed hay beneath her feet.

© Minnie Bruce Pratt, this poem appeared in "The Dirt She Ate."


Chopping Peppers

The slice across the top, at right angles, and
I am inside. If I did this for a job, where would I be?
Sitting on a milk crate in a restaurant kitchen. Who
would I be? Someone chopping green peppers for
sweet-and-sour chicken. I hold the slippery bowl
and inside is the secret, an island of seeds, a palisade,
a reef, an outcropping of the future waiting for decay,
for the collapse of walls, for escape. Instead, I filigree
the flesh into odd bits of ribbon with the little paring knife,
the gesture effortless, no more than a minute, time to play
with these words, and my fingers and wrist don't feel a thing.

I was no metaphor when I fed a machine eight hours a day.
I was what came before words, my hands the spring,
setting metal jaws to shut, the same synapses to snap
together every second all day again and again
until what was being done could be named.

© Minnie Bruce Pratt, this poem appeared in "The Dirt She Ate."


Standing in the Elevator

There’s the awkward moment when the elevator doors close,
and we try not to breathe as loud as the big animals we are.
No words, because there’s too much to say and nothing
for our hands to do except punch the down button again.
We don’t need some fancy research to tell us how we want
to be together, standing over a table strewn with puzzle
pieces, lifting one jagged edge to fit against another,
to match the piece of blue sky you just made. Sure, we’re
in here because we need the money but it means nothing
by itself. Like the day the power failed, some of us stuck
in the elevator, and the building burning from the top down.
The cleaning guy had just his bucket and a squeegee blade.
He jimmied the doors open, he forced the steel doors apart,
in the vague light from the windows five people could see
enough to find their way out. When I was out of work,
and some guy at a stoplight asked to clean my windshield
for a dollar, I thought of that. Jobless, I thought I’d never hear
our niagara of sound going up the stairs again, or step,
immersed, into tens of thousands rushing to work. One molecule
in the many, carried along toward the purpose of our day. 
It’s never really about the money, except for the guys at the top.
They know how to make money off of us. We know
how to make things with each other. That’s what we want to do.

© Minnie Bruce Pratt, this poem appeared in The Progressive, January 2007.


Playing the Guitar Underground

The man with the guitar sings mi pobre corazón,
his heart and an empty hat at his feet as he sings
on the island between the local and the express train.
On the way north, past the muscled mudflat river,
there was some shelter on the border that’s not a border.
The bridge by the rattling cottonwoods, or a boxcar
near the barelas in Albuquerque, like the one where
he was born, one of eleven, five did not survive.
El perdito niño, his infant’s white gown pinned
with tiny milagros, the bent leg, the pierced heart,
the double eyes that see forward and backward,
the house, the helping hand, the note that says,
Living on the street for so long and I am tired
and always hungry and sick, please help
. A picture,
the three of them, Venimos desde muy lejos. Boxcars
head due east between watermelon-red and apple-red
mountains, New Mexico-South Carolina. But when
he comes to the green valley there is only one apple
after another in his hand, bleeding heart of Jesus,
take it and eat. Like the red rose he holds, standing
all day at the entrance to the highway tunnel under-
ground. He’ll trade his red for your silver, what’s left
of the twists of fish and snakes and quetzal-tailed birds,
the silver that flew away from there to here over the gulf,
or what’s left of profit sent north from the maquiladoras.
He says anyone without someone in the U.S. starves or
leaves the village, that’s el tratado de libre comercio.
In the broad-brimmed bowl of the hat, coins pile up
like grain, something to send home to replace the corn
that no one can afford to grow now in Michoacán.

© Minnie Bruce Pratt, this poem appeared in The American Poetry Review, Nov/Dec 2004


Going to the Unemployment Office

I stand in line with my friend until that was wrong.
The guard says punch in by phone, over there. The women
said, Going to get my pennies, and swung their handbags
down the aisle between machines. 10 million out of work.
Where are the others? More computers than people
in the room. The automated voice asks, Are you ready,
willing, able to work? Yes, 1, No, 2.
Fear squats in my belly,
takes out its pinchers and sets to work. My throat chokes
on words, oh, oh, oh, the whistle that no longer blows
at 7 a.m. The first time I had a tiny book all my own,
where I wrote down my search. The others are at home,
punching their phones, and the counselors are fired.
No machine can do my job, the torque of my words
in someone’s ear, but I cost money, the benefits package,
subsistence, flesh. Still, I’m not dead labor yet, a profit edge
to be made, my tongue and brain at a low enough wage.

In the morning grey I used to hear the garbage men
gee and haw the truck they hung on, right and left,
the mule plowing the field that’s now a flat sandy plain,
a windowless factory going on and on, without end,
inside 6000 women and men with bloody hands
kill the hogs and cut them up, can’t stand the job
more than a year. In the morning, a giant mechanical
hand jumps out from the garbage truck, closes on the
can, dumps it, throws it down. One man at the controls,
he’s warm and clean. But what about the other two
Black men who rode, arms up, staring out and leaning into the curve,
aloof, flattened to the side, two pillars holding up an invisible roof.

© Minnie Bruce Pratt, this poem appeared in The American Poetry Review, Nov/Dec 2004