Smoke and Steel
Smoke of the fields in spring is one,
Smoke of the leaves in autumn another.
Smoke of a steel-mill roof or a battleship funnel,
They all go up in a line with a smokestack,
Or they twist . . . in the slow twist . . . of the wind.
If the north wind comes they run to the south.
If the west wind comes they run to the east.
By this sign
know each other.
Smoke of the fields in spring and leaves in autumn,
Smoke of the finished steel, chilled and blue,
By the oath of work they swear: "I know you."
Hunted and hissed from the center
Deep down long ago when God made us over,
Deep down are the cinders we came from--
You and I and our heads of smoke.
. . .
Some of the smokes God dropped on the job
Cross on the sky and count our years
And sing in the secrets of our numbers;
Sing their dawns and sing their evening
Sing an old log-fire song:
You may put the damper up,
You may put the damper down,
The smoke goes up the chimney just the same.
Smoke of a city sunset skyline,
Smoke of a country dusk horizon--
They cross on the sky and count our years.
. . .
Smoke of a brick-red dust
Winds on a spiral
Out of the stacks
For a hidden and glimpsing moon.
This, said the bar-iron shed to the blooming mill,
This is the slang of coal and steel.
The day-gang hands it to the night-gang,
The night-gang hands it back.
Stammer at the slang of this--
Let us understand half of it.
In the rolling mills and sheet mills,
In the harr and boom of the blast fires,
The smoke changes its shadow
And men change their shadow;
A nigger, a wop, a bohunk changes.
A bar of steel--it is only
Smoke at the heart of it, smoke and the blood of a man.
A runner of fire ran in it, ran out, ran somewhere else,
And left--and the blood of a man
And the finished steel, chilled and blue.
So fire runs in, runs out, runs somewhere else again,
And the bar of steel is a gun, a wheel, a nail, a shovel,
A rudder under the sea, a steering-gear in the sky;
And always dark in the heart and through it,
Smoke and the blood of a man.
Pittsburg, Youngstown, Gary--they make their steel
In the blood of men and the ink of chimneys
The smoke nights write their oaths:
Smoke into steel and blood into steel;
Homestead, Braddock, Birmingham, they make their
steel with men.
Smoke and blood is the mix of steel.
The birdmen drone
in the blue; it is steel
a motor sings and zooms.
. . .
Steel barb-wire around The Works.
Steel guns in the holsters of the guards at the gates of
Steel ore-boats bring the loads clawed from the earth
by steel, lifted and lugged by arms of steel, sung
on its way by the clanking clam-shells.
The runners now, the handlers now, are steel; they dig
and clutch and haul; they hoist their automatic
knuckles from job to job; they are steel making
Fire and dust and air fight in the furnaces; the pour is
timed, the billets wriggle; the clinkers are dumped:
Liners on the sea, skyscrapers on the land; diving steel
in the sea, climbing steel in the sky.
. . .
Finders in the dark, you Steve with a dinner bucket,
you Steve clumping in the dusk on the sidewalks
with an evening paper for the woman and kids,
you Steve with your head wondering where we
all end up--
Finders in the dark, Steve: I hook my arm in cinder
sleeves; we go down the street together; it is all
the same to us; you Steve and the rest of us end
on the same stars; we all wear a hat in hell
together, in hell or heaven.
Smoke nights now, Steve.
Smoke, smoke, lost in the sieves of yesterday;
Dumped again to the scoops and hooks today.
Smoke like the clocks and whistles, always.
Smoke nights now.
To-morrow something else.
. . .
Luck moons come and go:
Five men swim in a pot of red steel.
Their bones are kneaded into the bread of steel:
Their bones are knocked into coils and anvils
And the sucking plungers of sea-fighting turbines.
Look for them in the woven frame of a wireless station.
So ghosts hide in steel like heavy-armed men in
Peepers, skulkers--they shadow-dance in laughing
They are always there and they never answer.
One of them said: "I like my job, the company is
good to me, America is a wonderful country."
One: "Jesus, my bones ache; the company is a liar;
this is a free country, like hell."
One: "I got a girl, a peach; we save up and go on a
farm and raise pigs and be the boss ourselves."
And the others were roughneck singers a long ways
Look for them back of a steel vault door.
They laugh at the cost.
They lift the birdmen into the blue.
It is steel a motor sings and zooms.
In the subway plugs and drums,
In the slow hydraulic drills, in gumbo or gravel,
Under dynamo shafts in the webs of armature spiders,
They shadow-dance and laugh at the cost.
. . .
The ovens light a red dome.
Spools of fire wind and wind.
Quadrangles of crimson sputter.
The lashes of dying maroon let down.
Fire and wind wash out the slag.
Forever the slag gets washed in fire and wind.
The anthem learned by the steel is:
Do this or go hungry.
Look for our rust on a plow.
Listen to us in a threshing-engine razz.
Look at our job in the running wagon wheat.
. . .
Fire and wind wash at the slag.
Box-cars, clocks, steam-shovels, churns, pistons, boilers,
Oh, the sleeping slag from the mountains, the slagheavy
pig-iron will go down many roads.
Men will stab and shoot with it, and make butter and
tunnel rivers, and mow hay in swaths, and slit
hogs and skin beeves, and steer airplanes across
North America, Europe, Asia, round the world.
Hacked from a hard rock country, broken and baked
in mills and smelters, the rusty dust waits
Till the clean hard weave of its atoms cripples and
blunts the drills chewing a hole in it.
The steel of its plinths and flanges is reckoned, O God,
in one-millionth of an inch.
. . .
Once when I saw the curves of fire, the rough scarf
Dancing out of the flues and smoke-stacks flying hair
of fire, flying feet upside down;
Buckets and baskets of fire exploding and chortling,
fire running wild out of the steady and fastened
Sparks cracking a harr-harr-huff from a solar-plexus
of rock-ribs of the earth taking a laugh for themselves;
Ears and noses of fire, gibbering gorilla arms of fire,
gold mud-pies, gold bird-wings, red jackets riding
purple mules, scarlet autocrats tumbling from the
humps of camels, assassinated czars straddling
I saw then the fires flash one by one: good-by: then
And in the screens the great sisters of night and cool
stars, sitting women arranging their hair,
Waiting in the sky, waiting with slow easy eyes, waiting
"Since you know all
and I know nothing,
tell me what I dreamed last night."
. . .
Pearl cobwebs in the windy rain,
in only a flicker of wind,
are caught and lost and never known again.
A pool of moonshine comes and waits,
but never waits long: the wind picks up
loose gold like this and is gone.
A bar of steel sleeps and looks slant-eyed
on the pearl cobwebs, the pools of moonshine;
sleeps slant-eyed a million years,
sleeps with a coat of rust, a vest of moths,
a shirt of gathering sod and loam.
The wind never bothers . . . a bar of steel.
The wind picks only . . . pearl cobwebs . . . pools
People Who Must
I painted on the roof of a skyscraper.
I painted a long while and called it a day's work.
The people on a corner swarmed and the traffic cop's
whistle never let up all afternoon.
They were the same as bugs, many bugs on their way--
Those people on the go or at a standstill;
And the traffic cop a spot of blue, a splinter of brass,
Where the black tides ran around him
And he kept the street. I painted a long while
And called it a day's work.
Red barns and red heifers spot the green
grass circles around Omaha--the farmers
haul tanks of cream and wagon loads of
Shale hogbacks across the river at Council
Bluffs--and shanties hang by an eyelash to
the hill slants back around Omaha.
A span of steel ties up the kin of Iowa and
Nebraska across the yellow, big-hoofed Missouri
Omaha, the roughneck, feeds armies,
Eats and swears from a dirty face.
Omaha works to get the world a breakfast.
Somebody's little girl--how easy to make a sob
story over who she was once and who she is
Somebody's little girl--she played once under a crabapple
tree in June and the blossoms fell on the
It was somewhere on the Erie line and the town was
Salamanca or Painted Post or Horse's Head.
And out of her hair she shook the blossoms and went
into the house and her mother washed her face
and her mother had an ache in her heart at a rebel
voice,"I don't want to."
Somebody's little girl--forty little girls of somebodies
splashed in red tights forming horseshoes, arches,
pyramids--forty little show girls, ponies, squabs.
How easy a sob story over who she once was and who
she is now--and how the crabapple blossoms fell
on her dark hair in June.
Let the lights of Broadway spangle and splatter and
the taxis hustle the crowds away when the show
is over and the street goes dark.
Let the girls wash off the paint and go for their midnight
sandwiches--let 'em dream in the morning
sun, late in the morning, long after the morning
papers and the milk wagons--
Let 'em dream long as they want to . . . of June
somewhere on the Erie line . . . and crabapple
Somebody loses whenever somebody wins.
This was known to the Chaldeans long ago.
And more; somebody wins whenever somebody loses.
This too was in the savvy of the Chaldeans.
They take it heaven's hereafter is an eternity of crap
games where they try their wrists years and years
and no police come with a wagon; the game goes
The spots on the dice are the music signs of the songs
of heaven here.
God is Luck: Luck is God: we are all bones the
High Thrower rolled: some are two spots, some
The myths are Phoebe, Little Joe, Big Dick.
Hope runs high with a; Huh, seven--huh, come seven
This too was in the savvy of the Chaldeans.
I saw a famous man eating soup.
I say he was lifting a fat broth
Into his mouth with a spoon.
His name was in the newspapers that day
Spelled out in tall black headlines
And thousands of people were talking about him.
When I saw him,
He sat bending his head over a plate
Putting soup in his mouth with a spoon.
Last updated: September 20, 2020