Their Pockets Empty

Section Two of Traveling Light covers some of the best of Wagoner’s non-nature poems written between 1956 and 1976. It’s easy to see why Wagoner doesn’t want to be limited to being a “nature poet,” as there are some fine poems here, though it was much easier for me to settle on a poem because there weren’t nearly as many competing for my favor.

While “The Labors of Thor” and the delightful “This is a Wonderful Poem” caught my attention first, “Bums at Breakfast” was equally fine, and seemed more representative of this section, which focused on the down-and-out, or, at least, the down-and-out in all of us. “Bums at Breakfast” suggests a possible reason why Wagoner, like his fellow poets Richard Hugo and Richard Wright, identifies so strongly with the common man:

Bums at Breakfast

Daily, the bums sat down to eat in our kitchen.
They seemed to be whatever the day was like:
If it was hot or cold, they were hot or cold;
If it was wet, they came in dripping wet.
One left his snowy shoes on the back porch
But his socks stuck to the clean linoleum,
And one, when my mother led him to the sink,
Wrung out his hat instead of washing his hands.

My father said they’d made a mark on the house,
A hobo’s sign on the sidewalk, pointing the way.
I hunted everywhere, but never found it.
It must have said, "It’s only good in the morning-
When the husband’s out." My father knew by heart
Lectures on Thrift and Doggedness,
But he was always either working or sleeping.
My mother didn’t know any advice.

They ate their food politely, with old hands,
Not looking around, and spoke in short, plain answers.
Sometimes they said what they’d been doing lately
Or told us what was wrong; but listening hard,
I broke their language into secret codes:
Their east meant west, their job meant walking and walking,
Their money meant danger, home meant running and hiding,
Their father and mother were different kinds of weather.

Dumbly, I watched them leave by the back door,
Their pockets empty as a ten-year-old’s;
Yet they looked twice as rich, being full of breakfast.
I carried mine like a lump all the way to school.
When I was growing hungry, where would they be?
None ever came twice. Never to lunch or dinner.
They were always starting fresh in the fresh morning.
I dreamed of days that stopped at the beginning.

Luckily, I was too young to experience The Depression, but my mother used to tell me how her mother always left food at the back door for those out of work. When times we’re as hard as that, there was no shame in not holding a job, simply joy when you were lucky enough to have full-time work. And apparently a feeling that you had an obligation, at least among the mothers, to help others in need. Seems like that’s what it used to mean to be a “Christian.”

Perhaps I like this poem so much because it reminds me of my own mother’s concern for others less fortunate than herself and of her life-long commitment to organizations like The Salvation Army. She would never have thought of holding a garage sale to earn money or even taking a tax break for donations. She’s also the one that passed on tales of the Depression and emphasized the need to help others. Though my father shared many of the same beliefs, he, like Waggoner’s father, emphasized thrift, the value of work, and the need to take pride in your work more than the need to help others, though he used to find ways of keeping men working that others would have fired long before.

I suppose I’m less generous than either of my parents were when it comes to giving handouts to “bums,” though I probably devoted more of my life to trying to help people, both as a caseworker and as a teacher. I’ve always respected people for who they are and seldom looked down on others who were less fortunate than I was. I’m not really a Christian but do believe that we are all “God’s children” and equally deserving.

Maybe if I’d been there when my grandmother fed the bums I would have wondered how they spent their day and dreamed of hitting the road, too. Maybe I, too, would have become a Jack Kerouc. As it turns out, though, my family moved so often when I was young that all I wanted to do was settle down in one place and make some life-long friends. You can only stand so many “fresh starts” before you realize you need to stick with something long enough to make a go of it.