For the wooden rod with its black knob resting lightlyI felt nostalgia for the loss of finger-touch with stuff we make for a living. A sign maker now works with mouse and keyboard, tweaking pixels on a glass screen – no more “the slow sweep and whisper / Of the brush.” The signs themselves are made at many removes, the “fresh and wet and gleaming” paint now applied in the invisible sanctum of an industrial ink-jet printer.
Against the primed surface, for the slow sweep and whisper
Of the brush—liked seeing the ghost letters in pencil
Gradually filling out, fresh and wet and gleaming, words
Forming out of all that darkness, that huge disorder.
Some few people still manipulate their work: chefs, the cutters of hair, surgeons, those who care for children and the sick. A blessed few, though not financially; except for surgeons, most are paid minimum wage.
The rest of us have to wrestle meaning out of the “huge disorder” with tools that are themselves intangible, information worker implements operated with plastic prostheses.
The poem appears on p. 172 of Fifty Years of American Poetry, New York: Harry N Abrams, 1984. It originally appeared in Work, for the Night is Coming, 1980.