Sunday Poem

One of the Citizens

What we have here is a mechanic who reads Nietzsche,
who talks of the English and French Romantics
as he grinds the pistons; who takes apart the Christians
as he plunges the tarred sprockets and gummy bolts
into the mineral spirits that have numbed his fingers;
an existentialist who dropped out of school to enlist,
who lied and said he was eighteen, who gorged himself
all afternoon with cheese and bologna to make the weight
and guarded a Korean hill before he roofed houses,
first in East Texas, the here in North Alabama. Now
his work is logic and the sure memory of disassembly.
As he dismantles the engine, he will point out damage
and use, the bent nuts, the worn shims of uneasy agreement.
He will show you the scar behind each ear where they
put in the plates. He will tap his head like a kettle
where the shrapnel hit, and now history leaks from him,
the slow guile of diplomacy and the gold war makes,
betrayal at Yalta and the barbed wall circling Berlin.
As he sharpens the blades, he will whisper of Ruby and Ray.
As he adjusts the carburetors, he will tell you
of finer carburetors, invented in Omaha, killed by Detroit,
of deals that fall like dice in the world’s casinos,
and of the commission in New York that runs everything.
Despiser of miracles, of engineers, he is as drawn
by conspiracies as his wife by the gossip of princesses,
and he longs for the definitive payola of the ultimate fix.
He will not mention the fiddle, thought he played it once
in a room where farmers spun and curses were flung,
or the shelter he gouged in the clay under the kitchen.
He is the one who married early, who marshaled a crew
of cranky half-criminal boys through the incompletions,
digging ditches, setting forms for culverts and spillways
for miles along the right-of-way of the interstate;
who moved from construction to Goodyear Rubber
when the roads were finished; who quit each job because
he could not bear the bosses after he had read Kafka;
who, in his mid-forties, gave up on Sartre and Camus
and set up shop in this Quonset hut behind the welder,
repairing what comes to him, rebuilding the small engines
of lawnmowers and outboards. And what he likes best
is to break it all down, to spread it out around him
like a picnic, and to find not just what’s wrong
but what’s wrong and interesting—some absurd vanity,
or work, that is its own meaning—so when it’s together
again and he’s fired it with an easy pull of the cord,
he will almost hear himself speaking, as the steel
clicks in the single cylinder, in a language almost
like German, clean an merciless, beyond good and evil.

by Rodney Jones
Transparent Gestures
Houghton Mifflin, 1989