“Jackhammering Limestone” by Erika Meitner


Jackhammering Limestone

You ask about the leaves and I tell you it’s been so dry here
the leaves are just giving up, turning brown, falling off the trees,

which all look dead. This might be a metaphor for the election or
might be a metaphor for nothing—it’s hard to say. Each morning

I wake up to machines across the street jackhammering limestone,
shearing away more rock-face and turning it to rubble strewn across

red clay soil so dry it heaves and cracks. It’s been seven weeks of
drilling and blasting, drilling and blasting, and that’s not a metaphor

for anything either except maybe my mid-life crisis, which I’m having
surely as there’s whiskey next to me and I’m up all night wondering

if I can be hairless again in some risqué places. Most days I refuse
to believe we’re doomed, despite growing evidence to the contrary.

I mean, it’s like the 1970s down there. Trust me. Most days, I listen
to NPR on my car radio and talk to one son or the other in the back seat

and ask them questions they sometimes answer as we drive home
past the pile of rubble and the leafless trees, which vaguely resemble

the girl I saw on campus wearing an entire shaggy outfit made from
flesh-colored plastic grocery bags campaigning on an environmental

platform for student council president. Her amazing bag-suit was rustling
in the breeze and it looked like she might take flight, just soar over campus

with the drones delivering burritos this week as a test stunt because
our motto here is Invent the Future, which I think about a lot—not as

‘your future’ in the sense of what I wanted to be when I grew up,
which I figured out by process of elimination was not a banker or a

computer programmer, and I never saw myself as a mother either but
here I am. More like I would invent a future where my black son will not

get shot by police for playing in a park, or driving, or walking from his
broken-down car. I would invent a future where there was always

enough chalk to leave notes for the next class: We are starting a revolution
somehow; instructions to follow. What no one told me about programming

computers for Merrill Lynch to keep their front-end trading systems
running past Y2K was that I was simply a dominatrix of code; the disaster

that would take our building down came later, and had nothing to do
with language. My cashier at Kroger has an epigraph on her name badge

under “Paula” that says, “I Will Make Things Right.” I hope that girl
wins her election. I hope that someday someone else will enter my

hairless palace and find it marvelous. The photos of broken glass; the piles
of rubble. The future is throttling towards us and it’s loud and reckless.


“Jackhammering Limestone” from Holy Moly Carry Me. Copyright © 2018 by Erika Meitner. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC, on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org. All rights reserved. This poem was first published in Tin House.


Poets Note

I live in a neighborhood built on reclaimed farmland, and underneath the clay soil here is limestone rock. For about six months, a few doors down from me, workers were jackhammering limestone (thus the poem’s title) to put in the foundation of a new house because our houses are too close together to allow for straight blasting. This backdrop of constant bone-shaking noise led to my writing an entire series of “jackhammering limestone” poems, but only two survived  the revision and editing process.

I was writing this, too, against the lead-up to and backdrop of the November 2016 elections, after police had gunned down Philando Castile and Terence Crutcher. Tamir Rice was also on my mind while I was writing this poem, and in my poems (as in this one), I sometimes address the complications of what it’s like to raise one white son and one Black son in the 21st-century Appalachian South. About a year after I wrote this poem, I was invited to lecture in a colleague’s literature course, and I read “Jackhammering Limestone” to the students. After class was over, a woman came up to me to show me a photo on her phone of her friend wearing the plastic bag-suit mentioned in the poem. It turned out the woman in my poem—her friend—had been in a car accident and died soon after I had seen her on campus, and we both had an emotional moment when we recognized the power of stopping to notice something. I had inadvertently immortalized her friend in my poem simply because—on a day where I was rushing to class—the sound of those bags rustling made me stop and focus my attention. I think a lot about this Simone Weil quote when I’m writing—“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer”—and also Paul Celan’s similar thought: “Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the human soul.”


Erika Meitner is the author of five books of poems, including Ideal Cities (Harper Perennial 2010), a 2009 National Poetry Series winner; Copia (BOA Editions 2014); and Holy Moly Carry Me (BOA Editions 2018), winner of the 2018 National Jewish Book Award in poetry and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Holy Moly Carry Me can be ordered here. Meitner’s poems have been published in Best American PoetryThe New York Times MagazineTin HouseVirginia Quarterly ReviewThe Believer, and elsewhere. Other honors include fellowships from MacDowell, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Hermitage Foundation, Bethany Arts, Blue Mountain Center, and the US-UK Fulbright Foundation. Meitner is currently a professor of English at Virginia Tech. Her website is here.


Comments by Contributing Editor Susan Cohen

If you’ve only read “Jackhammering Limestone” once, rushed along by its breathless leaps and apparent stream-of-consciousness, go back and read it again. Trust me. You will be rewarded.

I say “apparent stream-of-consciousness” because Erika Meitner manages to be both accessible and tricky, but not random. She values the power of surprise as do many poets whose work can be described as disjunctive. The adjective I’d choose for “Jackhammering Limestone” is not disjunctive, however, but braided—tightly woven in a way that is distinctly Meitner’s. The poem assaults us with the speaker’s sense of loss of control over the future, spins us around until we are half-dizzy, and it works brilliantly because it is so exquisitely controlled.

Along the way, Meitner repeatedly returns to references about the female body and the body politic, introducing various contexts and differing tones from coy and casual to direct and apocalyptic. The things that matter to her—her own body, her children, a country on the brink of the Trump administration, and the injured planet—all appear to be under siege, just like her eardrums. The poem smacks of catastrophe far beyond the speaker’s self-described “mid-life crisis.”

Meitner, whose grandmother survived the Holocaust, grew up in a Jewish community but now lives in a Southern Appalachian town where her neighbors are Evangelical Christians and gun owners. She has dealt with infertility problems and is the mother of two young sons, one white

and one Black. These autobiographical details emerge from the poems in Holy Moly Carry Me, Meitner’s fifth collection, a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award. They inform both subject matter and point of view. The poet is an observer in a strange land who describes it in almost disturbingly intimate detail.

It’s as if Meitner walks around with her cell phone always out, alternating between selfies, video panoramas, and closeups, a style that has been called “documentary.” When we watch a documentary, we tend not to think about the importance of the film editor, the person who splices the scenes together. Meitner acts simultaneously as subject, director, and consummate film editor. In the process, she achieves a highly personal way to address the world in poetry that can include political statement, building on the confessional, the discursive, and the reportorial to create poems that could be no one else’s. Meitner finds a place to stand that’s beyond the personal-as-political but well short of polemic. And she makes it look easy.

“Jackhammering Limestone” comes just before the final poem in Holy Moly Carry Me, so we have been well-prepared for its shifts and shiftiness.

Who is the “you” the poem addresses, who never reappears after the first line? And how trustworthy is this narrator who tells us that the dead-looking trees and the brutal jackhammering are not metaphors, or that maybe they are, and who then inserts “Trust me” like a politician?

If these choices unsettle us, so do Meitner’s couplets, a formal device that might give us time to pause and room to breathe. Instead, only one ends on a full stop. The enjambed sentences spilling over the line and through the stanza breaks propel us relentlessly forward.

We are pushed and pulled from the dry season to the election to the jackhammer to “risqué places” to a student running for a campus office wearing “flesh-colored grocery bags” as an environmental statement to the key word in the poem “future.”

And then the poem takes a turn in tone from nearly whimsical to this raw and terrible statement: “I would invent a future where my black son will not / get shot by police for playing in a park, or driving, or walking from his / broken-down car.” From this point on, Meitner’s images embody terror. The poem tells us she worked as a programmer to avoid a disaster that never happened (Y2K, when experts feared the year 2000 would crash all the computers) in buildings later targeted for actual disaster on 9/11.

Even as menace co-opts the poem, Meitner brings back images and vocabulary from earlier stanzas. Now, the girl running for student office to save the planet is juxtaposed with the girl cashiering at Kroger’s with her meaningless nametag, “I Will Make Things Right.” The “risqué places” are echoed in the “hairless palace” while the jackhammer’s “rubble” is recalled by photos of devastation, presumably the broken Twin Towers. The “test stunt” burrito-delivery drones return weaponized as planes that brought the towers down.

By the final, chilling line, Meitner has led us a long way from her neighborhood and school campus to a future that “is throttling towards us.” Wrecking resounds in “reckless.” This future does not sound the least bit whimsical and appears beyond our powers to reverse-engineer. We are at its mercy, and it is a machine.


Contributing Editor Susan Cohen’s most recent book of poems, A Different Wakeful Animal, won the 2015 David Martinson–Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press and can be ordered at Amazon, Red Dragonfly Press, or here at Small Press Distribution. She was a newspaper reporter, contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine, and professor at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism before earning an MFA from Pacific University. Her poems appear widely in journals and anthologies, including The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, and have received numerous honors, including the Rita Dove Poetry Award and the Milton Kessler Poetry Prize. www.susancohen-writer.com

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