June 22, 1946

From this hospital bed
I can hear an engine
breathing—somewhere
  in the night:

—Soft coal, soft coal,
  soft coal!

And I know it is men
  breathing
shoveling, resting—

—Go about it
the slow way, if you can
find any way—
                  Christ!
who’s a bastard?
       —quit
and quit shoveling.

A man beathing
  and it quiets and
the puff of steady
work begins
       slowly: Chug.
Chug. Chug. Chug . . .
         fading off.
Enough coal at least
  for this small job

  Soft! Soft!
—enough for one small
engine, enough for that.

A man shoveling,
working and not lying here
  in this
hospital bed—powerless
—with the white-throat
  calling in the
poplars before dawn, his
faint flute-call,
triple tongued, piercing
the shingled curtain
of the new leaves;
           drowned out by
   car wheels
singing now on the rails,
taking the curve,
   slowly,
         a long wail,
high pitched:
     rounding
            the curve—

—the slow way because
(if you can find any
way) that is
the only way left now
                for you.

 

This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.

William Carlos Williams (1883–1963) published several essays and poems in The Nation between 1937 and 1961; his work has been reviewed in these pages by Philip Rahv, Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, Isaac Rosenfeld, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov and James Longenbach.