Piece Work

by Alan Reynolds

Piece Work

poem ‘piece work’ and painting ‘a birded dream’ copyright © 2008 by Alan Reynolds All rights reserved including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.

Poems by Alan Reynolds are also published in books, in US and UK magazines and literary journals and on the Internet.


Preface I wrote the sonnet redoublé Piece Work in February 1997 while a guest of the Fundación Cultural Knecht-Drenth in Callosa d’En Sarrià on Spain’s Costa Blanca. Its atmosphere of rest and artistic expectation, the area’s natural beauty, and supportive e-mails from poets in the CompuServe Writers Forum all encouraged me. I am grateful to the friends and poets whose critiques helped me improve Piece Work and whose enthusiasm kept me trying to get it right, including the British poet Peter Howard who introduced me to the form with his sonnet redoublé Ring ‘o Roses and who suggested I send Piece Work out. In June 1997 I sent it to Envoi, which is probably the best poetry magazine currently available in England according to The Writers College. The manuscript soon came back with criticisms from Roger Elkin, Envoi’s editor, together with his note “some minor points - do please send again” which stimulated me as I revised the poem. I sent him the final revision in June 1998 and was very glad that he accepted it, printing it in Envoi 126 in June, 2000. Piece Work (literally work paid for according to the number of units turned out) is a poem I wanted to write. Long enough to tell a story, its form (a sonnet redoublé is a cycle of fifteen sonnets of which the first fourteen form a ring, or corona, each starting with the last line of its predecessor, and where the fifteenth is comprised of the first lines of the other fourteen) seems right for Piece Work’s story that revolves and repeats, on different levels: a story that runs over itself over and over again. The you / we / me role-shifting is intentional and I hope effective ambiguity that encourages speculating about whether one colleague is talking to another, or one man alone is generating/hearing two voices that try to reconcile demands to fight with a need for peace. A. R., June 22, 2000, Monnickendam

Piece Work

Just bits you sell in passing as you fall. Few SM fans extend to drilling teeth, but you don’t stop. It seems to be your calling. I command you: Stop. Come lay one wreath, just one, to lay your longings out to rest. They’ve run from dawn to vespers. There’s the bell. You’re always in to put yourself to test, but shadows lengthen. Longings likes yours dwell too long in skulls like yours, and drive men mad. El Cid would dream like you, but then would act while you but scream in slumber. If you had his energy, you’d long ago have packed your weapons, and have died in one last bout. The theory: Go inside. Grab. Fetch it out.

The theory (go inside, grab, fetch it out) can soothe you. Save you. Try it here tonight. I’ll help you practice, and, as one, we’ll rout the demons who still make your smile too tight when people who don’t know it talk of war. You’ve learned well not to flare out these last years. You simply walk away. You don’t get far. When you look in the mirror I see tears. You lock your heart when they laugh at lost lives, and I applaud your stillness. Stoic. Sane. But later, when you oil and whet your knives and rust their hinges crying, you’re the bane of my senescence. Come. It’s time to wrench. Display it flayed upon the market bench.



Display it flayed upon the market bench? Yes. I’ll tell you what. Step down this way, into our memories. Yes, that’s the finch. The bigger boys had burned its beak away. You would have killed them had you had a gun; but thankfully we didn’t, and the brick you broke upon one’s instep let us run away to grow up. Yes, this is the trick you learned in school of asking people Why each time they talked of action. You’d oppose with questions (better every year), defy each thoughtless action. Still would, I suppose. You like to lay your verbal traps about and mark who flinches at your barker’s shout.

And mark who flinches at your barker’s shout. Yes, you’re a barker. Biting’s not your style. And war’s the weapon you would do without. Turn the other cheek. Walk extra miles. You don’t believe in that? What else is left to you, who are convinced that evil grows in ratio to righteousness of men who shoot, but look no further for a rose, or other reason, to be friends. When war won us (well, lost us) — forced us to confront the evils you had hated from afar — you did your worst, effectively, to shunt opponents to the Styx. You drench this stench: this once was you. You sell it now to quench...



This once was you. You sell it now to quench a craving you developed (in those caves) for being left alone. We ought to bed a winch in the quarry (yours, mental), hoist those knaves that taunt all your remaining summer nights. Remember Spring? Colombia? You liked to sing, and tease the colonel’s wife to shed her tights, one of the pairs you’d parted with to wring revenge from his, the colonel’s, side. And all because you saw him maim that bird. ‘La vida’, as your actions broke his heart, ‘no vale nada.’ Courts found it absurd that you were charged - and set you free to flood your thirst for patronage, and theirs for blood.

Your thirst for patronage, and theirs for blood, and that in northern cities for escape, could make us rich. And better yet, it would have done, you vigilante in a cape, but you decided drugs could harm a child and children, like small birds, should be set free. Now action-tuned, you turned yourself loose. Wild. You bombed the plane we guarded on the Key. They would have killed us both. You got them first. ‘Off the offal’, was your crazy cry. In many tongues you overfed this thirst, became too facile helping others die. When Roma called, you auctioned off your hate. Note down who pays your price and hefts its weight.



Note down who pays your price and hefts its weight. Our lives hang in the balance. Be alert. You’re foreign here, like everywhere, and rate a special sanction. Worse than death is hurt, and hurt is what is driving our host’s plan. You think his wife’s attractive, but it’s she who urged his group to hire you. Over flan, that follows goose and brandy, she’ll decree how many ounces of your flesh they’ll chop away in retribution for expenses you’ve cost her family. As their profits drop they cut their losses. Lost flesh recompenses their pain. You use the knife, and hear the thud; note how the drops behind them turn to mud.

Note how the drops behind them turn to mud, and turn, and tunnel. Down and down and down to where the boatman waits. He lets you huddle in the bilge, hide underneath the gown the bishop gave for passage on the Styx. Now we are here, and Death is here, and Life. And something Else, that throws one die to fix your pattern for the future. There is strife, and stridency. Subterfuge, and, then, tender remonstration. Candles light. We glide away, no oars. A hand of unknown gender takes yours, takes mine; it lifts us safe inside an ancient hall. Tall monks expectorate the little puffs of dust they wet, then wait.



The little puffs of dust they wet, then wait to watch re-dry, grow up: stalagmite men. Approaching you, these golems hesitate, then strip you bare, and bind you fast with tin and copper wires. You don’t resist. Your breath, too shallow now to cloud a looking glass, expires without a sound. You welcome Death. You wait in vain. A score of hours pass and Nothing happens; No-one’s here. No human hand unbinds you, then you’re free. You’re free, and hate no more, and birdsong clear as God’s, or Julie Andrews’, do-re-mi leads you to a window. Hold the sash a while, for decency, before you dash.

A while, for decency, before you dash, isn’t long. You fear no golem’s hands, or mob reprisals. Nothing makes you rash, and singing birds suspend thin silken strands to guide your steps as we stride from the cave and out its mouth to glory. I shed tears, but you are taciturn; you do not rave, or get us into trouble. You’ve no fears. No fears. No more. And also, no more hopes. You sell your time as worker bon marché; ignore the barks of meal dogs hanged from ropes. You’re catatonic, want to stay that way. You, once the warrior, let all battles pass — to spend your income on a looking glass.



To spend your income on a looking glass is motored by a very meager plan: you want, here, after all that’s come to pass, to check if you can see the inner man. I find you can’t. To me I look the same, and you (who’s that?) remain romantic, lost; and little changed, in visage, from the game you’ve played (played us) each time a coin was tossed, and every time a birdcall called us out. Your armor’s rusty, and you’ve lost your thrust. It’s time to cut from battlefield to pout, to sell out memoirs to the upper crust. They’ve always had our soul. We need the cash, to see if, now you’ve lost it, you look flash.

To see if now you’ve lost it you look flash requires more money than a monk can muster. The wage you earn retiring market trash, a quarter what the major pays his duster, is what we used to get through in an hour. Use your skills and give your back a break; I could use the money and a shower. This city, and this world, are on the take; but you, of all Earth’s fools best in the know, persist with head down, hoeing with a rake. Reciting lines like litanies, you go through time entombed, with both feet on the brake. Look then! Has your grace gone to higher class or simply thinner? Thinking soon will pass.



Or simply, thinner thinking soon will pass. Fat chance you won’t give power one more whirl. The mayor’s duster will not let his nasty wishes shame her. Poor and stupid girl! He calls this virgin, ‘Whore.’ What’s that, a sty? Your eyelid twitches. Knife back in that sheath! The mayor’s lynch friends vote to crucify this righteous girl, then burn her, on the heath. No, these are not just words. They really will. It’s custom here; and you are garbage — low, not lethal anymore. You will not kill, though your inaction ushers in Hell’s glow. Don’t let reason leave, to heed this call, as did career and family. They are all.

As did career and family. They are all you ever had. God knows I miss them so. You take the knife, the knives (the knives!) and haul their edges over leather till they glow, surprise the mayor’s henchmen cleaning guns — surprise the mayor too, by striking low. The river’s dark at noon down where it runs beneath the heather bridge. The current’s slow, and heartbeats stop. The bravest one is yours. Yours starts again. The town makes you new mayor. Of all you were, the little that endures, the piece that works, is not the righteous slayer, but the parts you flog, ignoring birds that call — just bits you sell in passing, as you fall.



The theory? Go inside. Grab. Fetch it out. Display it flayed upon the market bench, and mark who flinches at your barker’s shout this once was you. You sell it now to quench your thirst for patronage, and theirs for blood. Note down who pays your price and hefts its weight. Note how the drops behind them turn to mud the little puffs of dust they wet. Then wait, a while, for decency, before you dash to spend your income on a looking glass to see if, now you’ve lost it, you look flash, or simply thinner. Thinking soon will pass, as did career and family. They are all — just bits you sell in passing, as you fall.


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