Seventeen, quit school, lied my way
into nineteen and a night-shift job.
When the world settled into dusk,
I’d ride the Bathurst streetcar to the stockyards,
walk past the cattle pens, gusts off the lake
braiding their calls with the growl
of shunting box-cars.
I worked alone, hauled skids of meat
through a maze of rooms and freight elevators,
buzz-saw of neon slicing the silence.
Within an hour I’d be talking to myself
pushing the skid–loader, singing
songs to keep from being haunted,
the endless body parts and boxed meat.
After midnight, I’d go out the sixth-floor fire escape,
look for the north star, an imposter
lying without knowing why.
The world still as a dead sparrow,
I mined dreams from the dark hallways,
thought that when I’d made enough,
I’d take the train across the prairies
before the snow came, find a way to start over.
Day men brought the rumors of light,
prodded the steers up to an elevated pen.
Shot, the floor split open and the body
slid down a chute to the kill floor,
cut apart in twelve minutes.
How fast life vanished,
how little time there was
if you were ever caught lying.
I’d walk to the time-clock room, surprised
to see my name-card with all the others,
bellowed two-note laments riding the air
before the slam of the floor-gate.
Out in the land of schemes, calls
sticking to me like the smell of wood-smoke,
I’d drift to sleep at the back
of the morning’s first street-car,
rail-joints click-clack heartbeat.
Mark Burke’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the North American Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Sugar House Review, Nimrod International Journal and others. His work has recently been nominated for a Pushcart prize. See: markanthonyburkesongsandpoems.com