Weekend Poem: Labor Day by Joseph Millar

We’ve featured a favorite poet, Dorianne Laux, before. Her husband, Joseph Millar, is a terrific poet in his own right. Hailing from a blue collar background, he switched to teaching and writing in mid-life. And, just as Laux revisits to the theme of hard work, blue collar labor and relationships often, Millar’s poems often focus on these same themes too.

In the US and Canada, the first Monday of September is a national holiday in honor of workers everywhere. In the US, it was declared as such in 1887 and there’s quite a history about how the date was finally fixed. It all started, however, when New York machinist, Matthew Mcguire, organized a large picnic on Sept. 5, 1882, to honor the working person. That event became the first Labor Day.

Today, although many in the US view Labor Day as the official end of summer or the beginning of NFL/College Football season or a day off work to go shopping at the many sales happening all over the country, there are some who still keep in mind the deeper context and significance of this particular holiday. As does this particular poem.

What I enjoy most about this short poem is the cinematic image that each verse gives us. With each image, Millar shows us the inactivity across various places — factories, construction sites, fishing boats, etc. And, yet, with each description of inaction, he shows us the considerable level of activity that typically ensues on a normal, non-holiday.

There is a falling-rising rhythm to the language as well — not unlike Laux’ ‘The Shipfitter’s Wife‘, that was featured earlier. With this poem, too, the reading itself induces particular sensations relevant to the poem’s theme. As we read it, we feel ourselves lulled gently into a kind of laziness or idleness, just as the things and places described seem to be.

It is also interesting to note that the only people directly referenced in the poem are the “bosses” at the beginning. After that, all the descriptions are of places and things that are inert due to an entire lack of people/workers to do something with them. A world abandoned. A world that seems to have stopped functioning entirely because the workers have stopped doing their thing.

The last two lines are, for me, the best as Millar shows us that little bit of unrest amidst all that stagnation. “the tuna boats rest on their tie-up lines // turning a little, this way and that.” Almost as if the boats are restless to be doing something, to break loose from their moorings and get back into the water.

Wherever you might be this first Monday of September, and whatever import you might attach to this particular observance, do enjoy this lovely poem for both its meaningful context as well as its rhythmic beauty.

Labor Day

Even the bosses are sleeping late
in the dusty light of September.

The parking lot’s empty and no one cares.
No one unloads a ladder, steps on the gas

or starts up the big machines in the shop,
sanding and grinding, cutting and binding.

No one lays a flat bead of flux over a metal seam
or lowers the steel forks from a tailgate.

Shadows gather inside the sleeve
of the empty thermos beside the sink,

the bells go still by the channel buoy,
the wind lies down in the west,

the tuna boats rest on their tie-up lines
turning a little, this way and that.

~ Joseph Millar, ‘Blue Rust

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