Maybe you know this famous photo by Charles Ebbets?:
If not, this is from the middle of the Great Depression, as the GE Building (now more popularly known, maybe, as “30 Rock”) was being built. There’s something strange and poignant about all this New York Deco history happening in the middle of economic disaster. Probably the starkest example of this, in this photo at least, is the fact that these are men eating lunch (actually, posed to eat lunch) nearly 1000 feet above the ground, with no safety harnesses. The pulley in the foreground caught my attention, as did the man on the far right, who does not appear to share the camaraderie of the others. Since this was the prompt list I put together…
1. “…understanding what touch meant / for the first time…” (Roger Bonair-Agard, “Because I cannot remember my first kiss”)
2. “The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.” (Stephen Spender, “The Truly Great”)
3. “I bled sweetness across the outside of my teeth.” (me, “Treasure Hunt”)
4. an artistic photograph of something mundane
5. Give an example of the usefulness of a simple machine.
BONUS. Give your poem a prime number of lines (prime numbers being those that can only be divided by themselves and 1, such as 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, etc.)
ALTERNATE (2). “We pretended to know nothing about it.” (Cleopatra Mathis, “Dead Fox”)
…I thought of the photo pretty quickly, and the poem grew from there. There’s probably a lot more to be written just from this photo (and indeed there’s even a documentary about it, particularly about how nobody knows the identities of these men for certain), but this will have to do for now.
(lunch atop a skyscraper, 1932)
The man on the end frowns at the camera
while the rest pass cigarettes, discuss baseball,
trade gristle and hard-boiled eggs for red apples.
He drinks his lunch from a half-empty flask
to take the edge off, to help him forget that he is
one sharp breeze away from death.
Most builders have forgotten to envy the beam,
held in its web of pulley and rope, except this
scowling man pulling a rosary around the hand
tucked in his pocket. Life has gotten
so cheap these days. He, at least, is still
not ready to give up on it, even when shivering
on the bread line, or riveting these new cathedrals.
Or even now, when the bosses tell their men,
walk out on that girder– sit– smile for the camera–
and he does not smile. Tenacious as a bull.
Staring at the crowd who waits for him to fall.