Posted by: John Looker | 11 December, 2012

CARETAKER

Another poem exploring work. Not really about the caretaker or janitor. More to do with exploring a fairly common state of mind :

….

CARETAKER

 

” Funny thing about Time … it’s like this dust,
however you sweep it away there’s always more …
            (more or less, and less is more)

When can I decently open the gates? It must
be at least an hour before the van is due …
I could read the paper again … but what if they saw?
            (what if they see, what if they saw)

This yard looks almost square … there’s very few
can see how it tapers … that’s why the vans are glad
I tell them how to turn … if management knew
the half of it … I’d have white lines put down …
like we did that day to the pitch when I was a lad!
           (ah Jim-lad, aha)

The lass in the office, with the hair, she’s not been round
for a while – but she likes a joke …
                                                               if that’s the chime
I can open the yard, I’ve pushed this broom around
for long enough … dust to dust they say …
and ashes … but why do they say it flies, Time?
           (why do they say it flies?) “

© John Stevens 2012 

This is the fifth poem in “States of Mind”, part two of the series of poems Looking at Life through Work.

Coming soon: “Hotshot” and then “Baker”.

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Responses

  1. great poem John. You’ve done another superb
    job at painting the picture here.
    I think the last stanza is excellent.

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  2. Thanks Fred. I’m glad it wasn’t boring …

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  3. Where ever I worked there was always a “lass in the office, with the hair,”

    Now I have retired she is a receptionist in the doctor’s surgery!!!

    I enjoyed this John

    David

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  4. ‘Caretaker’ could be something of a viper’s nest, couldn’t it? We think we know what a caretaker is, but…suppose we suppose words really describe what they name—like a ‘doorstop’ must stop a door—a ‘caretaker’ might just be a supreme accolade. A Prometheus of concern. A Gandhi for the garden. Little kids would dream…someday I’ll be a caretaker. Almost as good as playing first base for the Yankees. (my dream). Of course that’s not what we mean, is it? Caretakers get left behind—to take care of mom or maintain the mansion while the family is away. They sweep the steps and take out the garbage. No one aspires to be a janitor. So, you’re right to preface this piece with an explanation. A poem called ‘Caretaker’ that’s not really about a caretaker—but of course it’s not: it’s a caretaker talking, musing, thinking. Killing time thinking about time. Trying to get that quote straight, how’s that go again? More is less? Less is more? Free associating into it. Mies van der Rohe (who, I believe is generally credited with the phrase) doesn’t quite enter the picture. Nor does architecture. We’re talking dust here not aesthetics…and less is not more…well, it will take to the end of the poem to get an appropriate quote for dust. And time: that it flies. I don’t think I’d want to sit next to our caretaker on a long bus trip. Why do they say that time flies? All that talking. I’m trying to read my book, sir, if you don’t mind. Still, he’s kind of elegiac, gifted with his gab. He kind of reminds me of my grandfather. He’s probably way too smart for the job he’s got. Not really a philosopher, more a poet. There’s a great line of poetry here—‘ah, Jim-lad, aha’. It catches the character of our caretaker perfectly—his history and his present. By the way, John, did I ever tell you that I used to be a building superintendent? It was really more like a maintenance business than a traditional super. But it was my job to ‘take care’ of the buildings. But that was a long time ago. Funny thing, about time…
    This is a real nice poem, John. Friendly, like our caretaker. Perhaps that is the right title for this poem, after all . Funny, the different ways you can take care of things. I still don’t want to sit next to him on the bus—but perhaps that would be my loss…
    Take care, Jim

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    • As always your observations are very rewarding to me, Jim; thank you. Right in the middle there you put your finger on what I was trying to express (but not well enough): the man trying to kill time, and his mind wheeling away to anything and everything. As you say, later, probably way too smart for the job he’s got – a common state.
      I’m sure you wouldn’t want to sit next to him on the bus, but he would be absolutely delighted with the opportunity!

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  5. Love the way the humdrum becomes background for the . . . ecstatic? What shall we call experience that shatters routine, takes us out of our habit-trained beings . . . . Anyone who has been or is a “caretaker” (I have recent experience) knows how important these moments are, how indulged, yet first things first . . . . The refrain echos the refrain in Hardy, who was also a chronicler of times-out-of-time. I could go on, but duty calls!

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    • Strange: I typed a reply yesterday, Tom, but must have forgotten to hit ‘enter’. I’m failing in my own work! I like your suggestion that the humdrum can be the background into which the ecstatic (or something difficult to name) may enter. Perhaps that hope keeps us going at times … or perhaps we just soldier on, head up, best foot forwards … or look for distraction and diversion … . Who knows?

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  6. I’m afraid, John, that I see depths in this poem that you may or may not meant. Maybe it’s my mood, though. Cancer has re-arrived potentially, and that may be coloring my interpretation, but…?
    The first stanza about time:
    ” Funny thing about Time … it’s like this dust,
    however you sweep it away there’s always more …
    (more or less, and less is more)
    Dust, at least to me, has a double meaning here. Dust can be a metaphor for death and the decay into dust that comes from the Bible: Dust to dust and all of that. So we have this caretaker pushing dust around, perhaps even in a cemetery–you never tell us that, though there are hints, and thinking idly about time, which is always spinning out to more time, more or less, and less is more in this contemplation.
    Then Jim, our caretaker character, moves from time as dust that is swept and swept eternally, and starts worrying in the moment:
    When can I decently open the gates? It must
    be at least an hour before the van is due …
    I could read the paper again … but what if they saw?
    The they here is filled with meaning. Who is they? It does not matter within the context of the poem, I suspect. They is… they, those who always decide the reading the paper might not be appropriate when you are supposed to be sweeping up the dust of time–the serious ones in life, the ones to worry about.
    (what if they see, what if they saw)
    What are the consequences for the sweeper of time’s dust if he, well, wastes the dust of time by reading a newspaper? This fellow Jim is not a white knight on a white horse charging madly at a white dragon. He needs his position in life.
    This yard looks almost square … there’s very few
    can see how it tapers … that’s why the vans are glad
    I tell them how to turn … if management knew
    the half of it …
    Then his contemplation, within the context of time, tells us that very few people really know the reality of the yard–a metaphor for the field of life? Maybe… They are not involved enough with the physicality of living to notice the taper in the square. It’s because the vans, the drivers of the vans, who come in and out with their endless deliveries, are glad for directions. Otherwise they would be lost. They are glad for someone who really sees the reality that could give them a bit of trouble…if management knew the half of it, but, of course, the they never really know, do they? They just criticize for a fellow for reading the paper.
    Then the comment:
    I’d have white lines put down …
    like we did that day to the pitch when I was a lad!
    (ah Jim-lad, aha)
    If this fellow was in charge he’d do things different, although he won’t of course, not with they in charge, and he’d do like he’d done as a lad, turning the square into a game of pitch, but…ah Jim-lad, aha…foolish boy inside the man.
    The lass in the office, with the hair, she’s not been round
    for a while – but she likes a joke …
    If only the lass with the hair was around she’d see the joke of the whole thing, his foolishness, but also the lad in the man, but she’s not been around for awhile, so the joke’s on him.
    if that’s the chime
    I can open the yard, I’ve pushed this broom around
    for long enough
    For the sweeper of the dust of time I suspect that this is really true,
    dust to dust they say …
    and ashes …
    The heart of the poem as I read it, and then:
    but why do they say it flies, Time?
    (why do they say it flies?) “
    when really time is around and must be swept up forever as the vans come and go, and the vans come and go.
    At least this is how I read a poem that has meanings inside what appears to be a simple story of a bored man doing his boring job as a caretaker. Thus the warning that the poem is not really about a caretaker, but also is one.

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    • I had some of this in mind, Tom: Time, dust&ashes, coping with tedium and powerlessness, questioning the value of a life, etc. They were left to ferment in draft for 4 or 5 months before I felt the text had matured enough. But you’ve shown me that these thoughts can be taken a good deal further – and I’m really grateful to you for that.

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  7. Hello John. I enjoyed this poem very much and all the astute and insightful comments as well. I like how this poem has a setting around it, how it is embedded within a story that I get hints of, pieces of. Though you give me a lot to sink into, I also find myself trying to piece together a “bigger picture.” Also, I connect to a longing to be “free” and to the question the caretaker asks concerning why people say time “flies”. I am quite drawn to the yard and to whatever lies beyond the gates and to what comes through them.

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    • It gives me a lot of pleasure to read this – thank you Anna.

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  8. I am struck by the delicacy and tenderness in this poem, John. Quite a moving study of a mind in the face of time.

    “the man trying to kill time, and his mind wheeling away to anything and everything” that you speak of… yes! I, too, “would have white lines put down” – though more for the sake of my own direction.

    I have tried to visualise the path of earth through space. I can imagine a spiral to be like a see-saw, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what shape the path of a human mind makes through space, even if I take for granted it’s attached to an earth-bound body.

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    • Thank you Brad. I like that idea: the path of a human mind through space – and time; it’s a teasing, playful thought. I can half imagine a diagram of it on your own blog …

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  9. Thought provoking, John. The simile is perfect, of course and, for me, you add so much with the inverted commas (my English teacher would have insisted on inverted commas to open each stanza, but that was a long while ago).
    However, I would drop the words ‘decently’ and ‘almost’.
    Good trick with the line break in the last stanza. Did you consider using it with some of the other ellipses?
    Sorry I took so long to comment – busy time of year, and it’s so hot! MC&HNY.

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  10. Thanks for taking the time to give a detailed critique, John, and I’m glad you felt free to make critical obs as well as appreciative ones.
    You set me thinking about ‘decently’ and ‘almost’. I admire poems that avoid adverbs and adjectives and let the verbs and nouns do the work, so why didn’t I manage that here? With ‘decently’ I had something extra in mind: physically he can open the gates – the question is whether he would look foolish to do it too early. But that ‘almost’ might be a weakness, and probably there would have been a better option that still fitted the metre.
    The line break was for greater emphasis at this point. A late amendment, so I’m pleased you felt it was right.
    Enjoy your hot Australian Christmas!

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  11. Happy New Year! 🙂

    Like


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