By Tony Robles
One of the powerful things within poetry is its connectedness to ourselves and our world. Poems are meant to bring us together with nature, with ourselves and with others. My uncle, the poet Al Robles, said that our “poetry is the best part of our struggle and the best part of our struggle is our poetry”. The connectedness we feel or want to feel becomes severed, disjointed, when we reach our places of employment. We are pulled apart, inch by inch, our eyes and noses are separated from our faces—we become disfigured and, in the reflection of the bathroom mirror, we barely notice. Those whose hearts and guts and minds are furnaces raging against injustice oftentimes find a dead-end sign located at their desk or workstation or in whatever position they happen to occupy at their places of employment. Oftentimes the higher you go on the work ladder, the more disconnected one gets from the ability to see, hear, feel—that is, the places where poetry breathes. Poetry prompts us to question our surroundings, especially authority. In this sense, poetry and work are a clash of fundamental opposites.
Henry Miller described, in his essay “The Staff of Life”, the following sequence of events: “Poor bread, bad teeth, indigestion, constipation, halitosis, sexual starvation, disease and accidents, the operating table, artificial limbs, spectacles, baldness, kidney and bladder trouble, neurosis, psychosis, schizophrenia, war and famine. Start with the American loaf of bread so beautifully wrapped in cellophane and you end up on the scrap heap at 45”. What Miller referred to as the “Staff of Life” was bread. He asserted that one could travel fifty thousand miles in America without tasting a good piece of bread. In the slice of American bread he tasted nothing; it was just filler that reflected a lack of sustenance, a perfect illustration of the “core of life being contaminated”. If our bread lacks life giving sustenance, one can say that it lacks poetry and poetry is the bread of life.
So, being 45 years of age, I am trying to avoid the scrap heap, trying to spend my time with worthwhile endeavors—that is, things that are worth my time. When I worked as an employment counselor at a local non-profit inferior complex agency (NPIC), I worked with mostly African-American and Latino men (and some white men who had been stripped of their entitlement for various reasons). My job was to train them in obtaining jobs as maintenance men or janitors or recyclers (For the beloved Folsom Street Fair). I’d sit with these men and talk. And for all the hardships that were written on their faces, all the prison sentences survived, their lives still held beauty. There was something about them that was different than what I’d encountered when working downtown at a life insurance company. While at that company, my concern was not in life but in death—for what is an insurance company but the very antithesis of life. I began asking these men what their dream jobs were.
Some of them laughed at the thought of entertaining the idea of a dream job. But a few looked inside themselves. One man told me he wanted to be the curator of an art gallery. “J” was a highly talented artist whose drawing of Che Guevara captured both fire and tenderness. Another man told me he waned to be an athletic director or coach working with kids. But in the backdrop was paperwork and protocols and, of course, the requisite meetings—all of which told me these men were somehow destined or not deserving of that dream job, or even a dream itself. That is the tragedy—the bread of no sustenance. But the poetry those men held and still hold was enough to sustain us within a system that was not meant to sustain any of us. We’d sit and laugh and sustain each other, bringing the poetry through, no matter what.
Which brings me to my dream job. I’ve given it some thought, and after a hundred (mostly bad) jobs, I have come to the conclusion that my life would be best served carrying bags. I want a job carrying bags of groceries for my elders. I want to carry bags of food or whatever else up staircases reaching far into the sky as the elders take a hold of my arm and guide me in the direction that is right—that is, the direction closest to my heart. It is the best feeling I can describe and the best use of my time. My uncle, the poet, was a coordinator for a senior meal program and I’d help him bring the rice upstairs and I had a boss who was cool enough to let me do it, knowing I’d get to work a little late. But she had the sense to know the connection between carrying rice up flights of stairs and the interconnectedness of things. I was late to work a few times but never late to my destination.
Let it be so. Let me have that dream job. And let me be compensated by just carrying those bags—for our elders have carried and endured much for us—poverty, disrespect, racism; but also laughter, hope and dreams. I climb the stairs carrying those bags that contain the sustenance of life, the poetry that is the best part of our struggle.
© 2010 Tony Robles