Oct. 12, 2007

Men at the Gates

by Gary L. Lark

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Poem: "Men at the Gates" by Gary L. Lark, from Men at the Gates. © Finishing Line Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Men at the Gates

They wait at the gates
in flannel shirts and heavy denim pants.
They wait for the gates to open,
the whistle to blow
signaling change of shift.
They wait for the mill jobs
to come back, with wages
that will feed a family,
wages to be proud of.
They wait in the parking lot
where one-stop-shoppers
now, twenty-five years later,
look through them like ghosts.
They wait in a rain
of gadgets and plunder,
companies from somewhere else
picking their pockets
trying to sell them everything
they don't need at bargain prices.
They wait for the world
to make sense again,
where calluses grow on your hands
and the soreness in your back
means you're worth a damn.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Robert Coles, (books by this author) born in Boston (1929), who was a psychiatrist working at an Air Force hospital in Mississippi in 1961 when he was driving past a grade school and saw a black first-grader named Ruby Bridges surrounded by an angry mob because she was trying to enter the all-white school. Coles later said, "Had I not been right there ... I might have pursued a different life." Most child psychologists at the time believed that children were shaped entirely by their family life, but Coles wanted to see how children were shaped by society. Seeing that little girl surrounded by a mob inspired him to study the children who were living through desegregation.

He got some funding and moved to Atlanta to conduct surveys, but the black children were terrified of this white stranger asking all these questions. So he threw away his clipboard and stopped wearing a tie and started sitting on the floor and just talked to them. His interviews became the basis of his book A Study in Courage and Fear (1967), which became the first volume in his Children of Crisis series that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. He spent the next 30 years traveling around the world, talking to the children of sharecroppers, children of the middle class, children in South Africa and in Northern Ireland. He said he was inspired more by the novels of Tolstoy and George Eliot than any psychologists or sociologists, and his books didn't get a lot of respect from his scientific colleagues, because he didn't include statistics or experiments. He said, "I just talk to kids and learn from them." The last volume in the series was The Spiritual Life of Children, which came out in 1990.

It's the birthday of the novelist Richard Price, (books by this author) born in New York City (1949), best known for his novel Clockers (1992), about a young drug dealer named Strike who's trying to make enough money to get out of the business without getting killed or arrested. It was one of the first works of fiction to describe the crack cocaine trade from the point of view of the dealers as well as the police, and it became a huge success. His most recent book is Samaritan (2003).

It's the birthday of the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald, (books by this author) born in Geneva, New York (1910), best known for his beautiful English translations of Homer's Odyssey (1961) and The Iliad (1974). He was also an influential classics professor at Harvard, and he believed that Homer's work should be always read aloud. One of his students said, "Every Tuesday afternoon he'd start [class] by saying to us, 'Listen to this, now ... It was meant to be listened to.' The 12 of us would listen, very quiet around the blond wood table, our jittery freshman muscles gradually unclenching." Robert Fitzgerald described Homer as "a living voice in firelight or in the open air, a living presence bringing into life his great company of imagined persons, a master performer at his ease, touching the strings, disposing of many voices, many tones and tempos, tragedy, comedy, and glory, holding his [listeners] in the palm of his hand."

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