Men Before Work

for Dana Gioia

It’s dark and cold. The fleet comes filtering in.
They take a breath. They get out of their cars.
Half-hidden in a cowl-like hood, their heads
are bent like friars walking through the fields.
Their coffee cups are hallowed in their hands.
The balmy vapors defrost the frozen air.
Some smoke, hung over, and the younger smile,
while jaded old ones pace like beasts in zoos.

The boss approaches like a quarterback
knowing the call, with bacon, egg, and cheese.
Directions given, the huddle’s broken up.
They fling their lunch-filled satchels in the trucks,
make some remark about an irksome wife,
or steep in saintly silence till they’re there…



Epiphanic Hangover

I wake up with cruel cotton-mouth, a head
that feels like an old attic without air,
with creaking floors and spider-webs. I said
I’d never drink again. I’ve got nowhere.
My body’s like an unoiled machine.
A dreadful fear and apprehension haunts
my schizophrenic conscience. Was I mean
to those I love? How did I answer taunts?
With fists to face? (My hand is sore.) I rise
to get some needed water from the sink.
It only will get worse and I’ll despise
myself all day, spent in surviving. Drink
has always wrecked me. The first step, they say,
is admitting that you are not O.K.

Both poems previously published in TRINACRIA



Reid McGrath lives and writes in the Hudson Valley Region of New York.

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14 Responses

  1. Peter Hartley

    Reid – both poems create a very strong atmosphere and in the first I find much to like, such as the casually inserted bit about the irksome wife among several other felicities, though on line six I might change “defrost” to “warm” for the sake of the meter. The second poem has so much realistic imagery that it reads as though it is very much drawn from pershunal exshperiunsh. And that photo that Evan has picked: I bought it as a postcard on the observation deck of the Empire State Building years ago, and despite my having strolled between the twin summits of the Matterhorn in my twenties with both hands in my pockets that postcard still gives me vertigo every time I look at it!

  2. Paul Erlandson

    Wow … I love both of these poems! The first sets such a palpable mood.

    The second, unfortunately, I can identify with through long experience of hangovers. I’m currently in AA and 647 days sober. 647 is a prime number, in case anyone is keeping track of that sort of thing.

    • Reid McGrath

      Thanks Paul. 2.5 years for me. Though Im not in Bill’s posse. Keep hammering.

  3. James Sale

    Both excellent poems, Reid, the second one especially: it gets an extra punch from the rhyme scheme – and the concluding couplet is a knock-out summation. But in reading it, Reid – and of course it may not be autobiographical – I can’t help but be a little worried about you! We had your excellent ‘gun’ poem for our SCP Zoom reading; now we have your ‘fists to face’ poem. Is the Hudson Valley a bit of a – as we say in England – ‘rough’ area?

    • Reid McGrath

      Thanks James. No need to worry about me. More dated poems. Haha! Haven’t reveled in the juice of the barley in quite some time, nor have I frequented New Paltz, my old stomping grounds, where, if you are a conservative late at night, you might find ample occasions to put fists to face, or, at least, knock some fellows hats off.

  4. Margaret Coats

    I like “Men Before Work” as a group scene of varied characters at one particular moment. The line “coffee cups are hallowed in their hands,” though, reminds me of the college town vista of students going to early classes, sometimes with eyes closed and coffee raised high as if it were a talisman drawing them in the correct direction. In fact, your well-developed poem-idea thus offers not only the scene you depict, but a vision of diverse groups in different locations at the start of the workday.

  5. Yael

    River guide hangover tip for some of you folks who may end up needing it:
    your liver uses up it’s store of B-Vitamins as it detoxifies the alcohol you consume and when the Bs are gone that sick hung- over feeling sets in. To cure, take over-the-counter supplement Niacin or Niacinamide (that’s the B Vitamin you need specifically) with adequate amounts of water and the hang-over goes away within 20 minutes. Niacin works quicker than the Niacinamide form, but either will work. Niacin can give a non-hung-over person a flushing sensation, but if you are hung-over and starved for B Vitamins that won’t happen.
    I’m a sober non-doctor-non-medical-professional and the foregoing does not constitute medical advice nor encouragement to consume alcohol. Try this at your own risk, or better yet, look it up on the internet:)

  6. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Reid, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading both poems and admire their stark realism. I love the line “… jaded old ones pace like beasts in zoos” in “Men Before Work”. I often feel like this in these Covid times… even when I’m not at work!

    “Epiphanic Hangover” (great title) is admirable for its masterly imagery and its raw and touching message. Thank you!

  7. James A. Tweedie

    Let me add my own echo of admiration for such strong and vivid imagery.

    Men Before Work brought back memories of 10 full-time summers on a paint crew, where we gathered for directions from the boss at 7:00 am each morning before heading off to our assigned tasks.

    Hard word and mostly brainless, but necessitating great skill and resulting in much pride and satisfaction for completing a job and doing it well.

    My later white-collar experiences rarely offered the sense of accomplishment that I felt when I was wearing a blue one.

    Thanks for the memories–and for expressing them with such fluid shape and form.

    • Reid McGrath

      Thanks, James. Sounds like you are a man after my own heart. The poem was inspired by working for a pool company in bustling Westchester County for a few summers. We also met at 7:00 AM and sometimes didn’t arrive back to the shop until eight or nine PM. As you said, more or less brainless; but actually quite lucrative, brutal, and necessary experience for any red-blooded American boy.


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