my father's manuscript

by Daniel Robbins


he writes it at night
it is about our family and the place
we came from which nobody knows
for certain except that it is not a country
but the names of mines from which
we seemed to come out of, not into —
this race of men spawned by coal,
my ancestors and their children
and their dead. He writes their history
as he remembers it, from a childhood
nourished by manhood and measured
in harvests, World Wars, 40 years
of sunrise as seen from construction sites,
and with this education he writes
chapter at a time, each in one sitting,
in a hurry, before the neck goes stiff
or before the pen runs out of ink
which has happened twice already
in the eight chapters that, since
I am the educated son, he gives me
to edit and type and like everything
it is work he has already done better,
but I will try anyway. Before I do
I sit at my desk, in the dark,
moving my finger-tips over
the indentions in the paper
trying to unravel the Adamic,
Braille language of good men
in between the ink and the paper’s
skin —each perfect word the
unspoken nomen of my people
flowing unbroken from his hand,
even in the margins where he writes
No. 7 Roof collapse; and Praco and
small math to figure the price
of soda and on one page The Lord
God formed the man from the
dust of the ground;
and as I type
my father’s words I see
that here is a record of men who
resisted compassion when
they slaughtered livestock
and they did so because it was
hunger they learned first, and
when they woke they did so
by sunlight, not human voices,
and they knew, better than anyone,
since they were the ones who
would wield it, that so much
did not depend, really, on
the wheelbarrow, but instead
on the axe and the clean blow,
and now they rest in the world’s
canon as “four men,” all “killed”
in an “explosion,” and not even
their full names could dig out
of that mine and into A History
of Mining Accidents in Southeastern
Counties 1830 – 1945
, and today
that book is the only one to ever mean
something, all my life until then wasted
in a thousand spaces cover-to-cover wide;
and now I know this is not why men went
into holes in the ground and then
out of those holes into trenches,
from trenches into crawlspaces,
steel mills, the basements
of richer men to fix their toilets
and hot showers — their whole
lifetimes and all that is after
spent under the earth, in caves,
watching shadows and rats
and their deaths are in vain if
I do not tell you, in case you were
under an illusion, that this
is not the poem — these words;
this is shit; this is nothing; — I would
defer you to the source,
to the hole in the ground,
the cupped hand, the dirt inside.