And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom
from In Memory of W. B. Yeats by W. H. Auden
Wander the towns of America,
are you free?
I asked this of a woman in the Dollar Tree parking lot
which had been wilting under the sticky Cleveland heat for weeks.
My head was a donut just out of the fryer.
She barely looked my direction as she gathered small children
set them right in the cart, tied a shoe, patted her purse.
Her hair needed a wash.
With a heave, she drove the cart, rusty and listing to the right,
up the ramp. The door opened out
and I watched as she maneuvered through
with a hard twist of her shoulder and a quick two-wristed shove.
But what I want to know, ma’am, is
are you free?
She turned on me then.
Her eyes were broken bottles
against a backdrop of painted bridges,
blackened three times and counting, and held enough hope
to kill a man.
The sound she made wasn’t a laugh
or a cry, it was the sound
of supper time forks clattering
but not enough vegetables or meat.
It echoed with the resolve to save beloved children
from war and the knowing that you will fail.
It was blood and spit, looking your enemy right in the eye.
It rang with the hammer beat of labor camps and the slow seep
of gas oven deaths.
Without one word, she spoke of children who aren’t safe
even in their own homes,
held all the too-early deaths
of the falsely accused
and unjustly persecuted.
It sang from a hymnal clutched in rosary hands
passing baskets of money. It held up choir boys forever changed,
and looked down upon televangelists just in it for
private jets and swimming pools, amen.
It broke her heart.
It shouted poor is bad and I will kill you for that,
one way or another.
Her voice was heavy smoke, rising right there in Aisle Four
between the Pringles and five dollar frying pans,
and it threatened to burn the place down.
And then it was gone and in its place, a soft breeze.
She patted a startled child on the head, smoothed his porcupine hair.
We have never been free, she said, sliding
a box of Strawberry Frosted Pop-Tarts in the thin space between
a son and a daughter, you just like to think we are.
Note: this piece was first published at Short Edition.