The Telephonist

Susan Yuzna

for David Foster
I had my order. Not of the choirs
of angels, but of the countries we called
in the stone dead heart of the night. Japan
was a young woman's voice, a cool river
through a thirsty land, sliding over my bone-
tired body like an icy, blue-green
wave. Australia was next--their perpetual
joking could keep me awake. I even
made history once: for eight years, a man
had been calling his brother in the bush.
He loved me, loved my voice, my flipping of
the switches in Oakland, California,
so that, at last, it worked. But usually
I was just too tired to care. My first
graveyard shift and I was much too tired
to give a shit when the businessmen yelled
about lines down in Manila again,
as if I could stop those typhoons, as if
I could make the old crones in Manila
love us, which they didn't, or be somewhat
helpful, which they weren't. Why don't you try
again in two weeks? I would say (the stock
response, a polite voice, then flip the switch,
cut him off, quick, before his swearing
poisons my ear). Too tired to care
about anything, not their business dealing,
not the drunken nostalgia for a whore
known during the war--he can't remember
her name, or the place where she worked, the
it was on, but could I help him find her?
He's never forgotten . . . I grew so tired
of phones ringing for eight hours straight.
I wanted to pull my hair out, one thin
strand at a time. It was a newly
invented circle of hell, and if you
had been there, you just might understand
why that infamous hippie girl rose up,
out of her chair, yanked the earphones off, and
onto a counter running the length of the room
beneath our long, black switchboard, then,
from station to station, pulled each cord
from its black tunnel, breaking one connection
after another, like a series of
coitus interruptus all down the board,
before they stopped her, and led her away.
She must be on LSD, said a wife
from the Alameda military base. And she wears
no underwear, either, added another.
That was 1970, back when Oakland
Overseas was still manual, but the hatred
of a ringing phone is with me yet.
I will stand at the center of a room
and watch the damn thing ring its little head
and I will grin, quite stupidly, at its
helplessness. I will walk out the door, fill
my lungs with ice, head for the far-off peaks.
I will lose myself, become one small, dark
in the white stillness of snow. I'm telling you
now, it was a brand new circle of hell,
but how could we know that, then? We had jobs,
the market was tight, and the union
won us cab rides home when we worked at night.
Reprinted with permission by the University of Akron Press. Copyright © 2000. All rights reserved.

Further Reading

Poems About Work and Money
A Situation for Mrs. Biswas
by Prageeta Sharma
by Elizabeth Alexander
Coming Close
by Philip Levine
Engines Within the Throne
by Cathy Park Hong
Hay for the Horses
by Gary Snyder
I am the People, the Mob
by Carl Sandburg
i am witness to the threshing of the grain
by John Hoffman
Odd Jobs
by Jericho Brown
On Quitting
by Edgar Guest
One of the Monkeys
by Nicholas Johnson
by C. D. Wright
Po' Boy Blues
by Langston Hughes
by Randall Mann
Song of Myself
by John Canaday
Song of the Shirt
by Thomas Hood
by Carl Sandburg
The Dance
by Humberto Ak'Abal
The Debt
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
The Eternal City
by Jim Simmerman
The Orange Bears
by Kenneth Patchen
The Unknown Citizen
by W. H. Auden
The Whistle
by Yusef Komunyakaa
The World is Too Much With Us
by William Wordsworth
Thinking of Work
by James Shea
by Sandra Beasley