In this poem by western New Yorker Judith Slater, we're delivered to a location infamous for brewing stories: a bar. Like the stories of...

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In this poem by western New Yorker Judith Slater, we’re delivered to a location infamous for brewing stories: a bar. Like the stories of John Henry, Paul Bunyan or the crane operator in this poem, tales of work can be extraordinary, heroic and, if they are sad, sometimes leavened by a little light.

— Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate

In the Black Rock Tavern

The large man in the Budweiser tee

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with serpents twining on his arms

has leukemia. It doesn’t seem right

but they’ve told him he won’t die for years

if he sticks with the treatment.

He’s talking about his years in the foundry,

running a crane on an overhead track in the mill.

Eight hours a day moving ingots into rollers.

Sometimes without a break

because of the bother of getting down.

Never had an accident.

Never hurt anyone. He had that much control.

His problem is that electricity

raced through his body and accumulated.

When he got down at the end of a shift

he could squeeze a forty-watt light bulb

between thumb and finger and make it flare.

All the guys came around to see that.

Judith Slater

Judith Slater is a clinical psychologist and her poem first appeared in “Prairie Schooner,” Vol. 78, No. 3, Fall 2004 by permission of the University of Nebraska Press with the permission of the author. Poem copyright © 2004 by The University of Nebraska Press. This weekly column is supported by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of Congress and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. This column does not accept unsolicited poetry. “American Life in Poetry” appears Fridays in Northwest Life.