Sometimes when I look at the sky I see the clouds become figures seated at a big table. Look, my mother-in-law says, those clouds look like the Last Supper. But it is more like the last brunch, on any Sunday not Mother’s Day, at the Polish Falcons social club, and all the Bushas gossiping about so and so’s cousin and so and so just died, and did you hear her granddaughter married a doctor, or so and so’s son is out of rehab etc. Those women who worked in machine shops for decades, side by side, like my mother-in-law who worked twelve-hour shifts, six days a week, with a foulmouthed foreman who tormented her, until my mother-in-law just took the buy-out and retired at 62, spit at the feet of the old bitch on her last day, in front of the molding machine she gave forty years—retired to let her bitterness ease with each passing win at Bingo. Now she laughs easy, goes out with her girlfriends, reads her romance novels and every Stephen King, does no housework— “Remember I worked forty years in a shop. I’ve done my time.” Loses days due to her migraines, her scoliosis, her slipped disk, offers up her inappropriate jokes learned on the shop floor, those tough women, with their fulcrums and their wrenches. She never learned to drive, her old shop mate picks her up and off they go to the social clubs, to buy the pull tabs and split the winnings, and the losses, sneak a Vodka before she comes home, and half listen uh huh and um hum to her husband drone on and on about his model trains, or how somebody visited the neighbors this afternoon. Today I watch her out in the garden. She doesn’t really like to plant or dig but I see her look up a lot—what is she staring at? Oh the clouds, that big table of Bushas, daughters of immigrants, up there, blowing on the big wind over the big lake, back to the motherland, and the great fields of wheat, clouds you know—the off-white billowy kind she tells me, “look like a cooking sheet of just baked butter milk biscuits.”
Mini-interview with Sean Thomas Dougherty
HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?
STD: There have been so many, days famous writers praised or scolded me. The day Shahid Ali praised my poems as “dark vessels of light” or Miroslav Holub held my prose poem up in the air and said, “Now this is a poem.” Those mattered as that gift of praise came at such a dark time. Or the time Maxine Kumin dismissed me for not knowing her work better and said, “Now go read young man.” I was hurt, but she was right.
Or the family days, my grandfather dying and how high on morphine he started speaking to his long dead mother. Or the day of my divorce, the days my children were born, or even just the morning every day after I get off of third shift. Those days.
Or probably the last day I did not die. It was a Tuesday. It wasn’t raining. I sat down to die. Then I stood up. I’ve been standing still.
HFR: What are you reading?
STD: The last books I’ve read were Wanda Coleman’s Wicked Enchantment, Matthew Olzmann’s Constellation Route, Erika Meitner’s Useful Junk, Jeffrey Thompson’s Museum of Objects Burned by the Souls in Purgatory, and powerful medical memoir The Cost of Living by Emily Maloney.
HFR: Can you tell us what prompted “Biscuits”?
STD: I was on break at my nightshift MedTech job, and I was thinking how I couldn’t work a 12-hour shift anymore. I’m too old and have health problems. Then I thought how my mother-in-law did it for like 40 years. Then for no reason I can name the line “Look,” my mother said, “those clouds look like the last supper came to me.” An old memory? The piece just took off. This is one of those pieces I relate to the influence of Lydia Davis, they operate in the slipstream between genres. I tend to think of this since it is very close to real life as a micro creative nonfiction rather than a prose poem, but in some ways it is all just “story.”
HFR: What’s next? What are you working on?
STD: I have a book of poems titled The Dead are Everywhere Telling Us Things which won the Jacar Press Full Length Prize that will appear in late June. And I’m finishing a new book of prose called Death Prefers the Minor Keys, under contract for BOA Editions. That book will appear in fall 2023.
HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?
STD: What more can one say during a time of rising fascism? To live in a country with the highest prison population in the world. To live in a country where people are pulled out of their homes and places of work just for not having a piece of paper that says they can live here. To live in a country that puts laws and language inside women’s bodies. What is poetry to do? I write this there knowing I have grocery shopping to do, the kids to get off to school, laundry to finish and bills to pay. A playoff game to watch before I leave for the third shift. The work to live is hard and never ending and is that how they get away with it? Despite a million voices shouting? What is the poem in the face of the police baton? Our stories matter. The stories of working people matter. I hope this story of my mother-in-law and her years of work matters. It is part of the greater struggle. They want us to die, they really do, the powerful with their yachts and their gated communities. All we are to them is labor. But we don’t die. We keep singing, and that is what they hate us most of all.
Sean Thomas Dougherty is the author or editor of twenty books including Death Prefers the Minor Keys (forthcoming, BOA Editions) and The Dead Are Everywhere Telling Us Things, winner of the 2021 Jacar Press Book Contest. His website is seanthomasdoughertypoet.com.
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