Seventeen, quit school, lied my way

into nineteen and a night-shift job.

When the world settled into dusk,

I’d ride the Bathurst streetcar to the stockyards,

walk past the cattle pens, gusts off the lake

braiding their calls with the growl

of shunting box-cars.


I worked alone, hauled skids of meat

through a maze of rooms and freight elevators,

buzz-saw of neon slicing the silence.

Within an hour I’d be talking to myself

pushing the skid–loader, singing

songs to keep from being haunted,

the endless body parts and boxed meat.


After midnight, I’d go out the sixth-floor fire escape,

look for the north star, an imposter

lying without knowing why.

The world still as a dead sparrow,

I mined dreams from the dark hallways,

thought that when I’d made enough,

I’d take the train across the prairies

before the snow came, find a way to start over.


Day men brought the rumors of light,

prodded the steers up to an elevated pen.

Shot, the floor split open and the body

slid down a chute to the kill floor,

cut apart in twelve minutes.

How fast life vanished,

how little time there was

if you were ever caught lying.


I’d walk to the time-clock room, surprised

to see my name-card with all the others,

bellowed two-note laments riding the air

before the slam of the floor-gate.

Out in the land of schemes, calls

sticking to me like the smell of wood-smoke,

I’d drift to sleep at the back

of the morning’s first street-car,

rail-joints click-clack heartbeat.


Mark Burke

Mark Burke’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the North American Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Sugar House Review, Nimrod International Journal and others. His work has recently been nominated for a Pushcart prize. See:

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