by Benjamin Busch

Winner, Slippery Elm Prize in Poetry


I’m digging a trench and I’m angry.
This is the house we couldn’t sell
because the banks cheated
and here I am
in mud up to my knees throwing muck
stuck to my shovel, dead weight,
50 feet to go.
No one cares that I have to do this
to save the cost of someone else
standing where I am, clothes drenched,
taking their time because they’re paid by the hour.
This channel through the yard is all so our old home will be better
than we ever had it for people who would never do this.

I feel a little sorry for myself,
a victim of my own choices again
and I’ll have to fill this in as a reward for heaving it out,
seal the scar with grass like an unmarked grave.
I know I’m toiling for the invisible,
like so many who have dug foxholes for one night’s rest,
laid cable and pipe, went down the mines and came back up,
and this is just to bury a new gas line, owners pacing over it
for the next fifty years, never knowing where it is.

My ditch is filling with water,
rain smacking the ground like spit,
my boots sliding and I think of Vietnam,
where I’ve never been,
and World War I, cut like fault lines across French fields,
the fallen soldiers rotting in mire,
lost in it, skulls coming up like buoys
and I keep stabbing the clay waiting to strike bones,
my arms tearing at the elbows.

I forget the injustice,
the labor just becoming a job that needs to be done.
I dig so that it will be finished, and when it is,
no one will know that I threw five tons of soil
and put them all back.
That’s what most work is.

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