- The Lords of Labor
—Karl Marx writing “The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.”
It was the time when children scrubbed inside chimneys, or crawled the methane swamps of the coal mines,
lit by iridescent fish. Mud streets and snuff and muck slops, horsehair beds, grindwheel and harrow.
The time when to show your mettle meant showing the flint chips stuck in your arm; when
to fire a worker meant, burn down his house.
Time was, Karl Marx sat rubbing his back (no bristling beard yet; no doctrines), sat studying so long
he couldn’t sit; the doctor said he’d gotten Weaver’s Bottom, new ailment of the kitchen-industrial age.
Marx frowns at his Hegel. Hegel’s ideas flutter like angels overhead. Lonely; he watches the fire grate;
the flames dancing . . . such indolence. A philosopher can see, in the burning branch, a devil-shape.
The worker puts his life into the object; his life belongs to the object; then the owner takes up the object.
Worker and owner, fighting for the beloved— a tale of Romance. When a man’s work is torment,
the owner feels pleasure. . . . The pages gather in Marx’s hands, and shift along his body.
A time when skull-lumps were measured, when hot bottles pressed to the skin sucked out disease. The mind,
its offices and strong-rooms, littered with stories The tongue, restless in the mouth; the fingers grip the pen like a spike—
Charles Dickens holds up Tale of Two Cities: “What is done and suffered in these pages
I have done and suffered myself.” His novel splits him into two parts, twenty, hundreds:
Dickens becomes both hero and lout, the golden-breasted girl and the vengeful, knitting Madame;
is Jerry Cruncher digging up corpses, so the body can labor after death, showing itself to students. . . .
Who are the lords of labor, the lords of cure and crime— the owners? Or the working body,
the broken mold of its work: a stonegrinder’s arm, heavy with flecks of stone; a farmer’s thumb,
swollen red with fertilizer. (The almanac lists the ailments as Mettle. Farmer’s Thumb.)
The cop by the highway, speed-gun in his lap humming with cancer—
Say goodbye to what you have made, watch your child flee from home; wave and wave and wait for your coin
to drop like mercury into the palm, nestling in divots and cuts, passing through flesh. . . .
Marx shifts painfully. His notes pile up. Someday, he becomes homework, robbing students of sex and drink.
— Only the youngest students are free, the children with their big books and their helper, the Norfolk terrier:
speak to it, and its head cocks in curiosity, as if suffering a pinched nerve— the posture called Wry Neck.
The terrier is paired with kids whose parents are away; they read it stories,
to which the terrier tilts wryly, “Really? Is that so?” And then one child,
thinking they are now friends, holds out the book to the dog: Now it’s your turn. Read my story,
and the dog head bows on its slender stalk.