By Sarah E. Seeley
How would I describe this smell that permeates my clothes, distinct,
Louder than my sweat after every one of my four tens?
It isn’t sharp or tangy like body odor, it isn’t unpleasant.
Not to me. Just dusty—but not a rich, earthen way:
There’s nothing damp about it, absent the teaming mildews of life.
It isn’t wind-swept or sun-scorched, nor gritty desert gravel.
Working outside has its own smells, scouring plains, forests, hills, noting
Fossils, artifacts, landscapes, my clothes dusted by sagebrush, insects, multicolored soils.
Several summers of my life included this kind of work training.
This, instead: inert, neutralizing, moon-like smell; anthropogenic loam filtered by
Modern human industry. Sterile dust comprised of the very finest stuff,
The stuff so small it evades broom and pan, the stuff
That puffs clouds out the back of shop vacs, rasping, whirring.
The manner of dust pushed around on surfaces we spray with
Lemon-essence cleaner—the COVID killing kind—swept, left to dry.
Harmless grime sprinkles my wrists, smears my palms and fingertips gray
Clinging to my skin until a little water carries it away.
It’s the smell of cardboard, stacked high on wooden pallets, churning
On three-foot spindles fastened a story’s climb overhead. One feeds
Wide stock, one feeds narrow, into the shrewd mechanical belly of
A custom box-maker branded “Packsize.” This EM7-25 scores dimensions
From a computer screen, humming, beeping, scraping stock through guide gutters
By hauls and pauses, like a giant, breathing Xerox machine. Sensors
Trigger a nozzle arm, striping hot glue, slapping box seams tight.
Sprinkling my clothes with shavings from 4:30 PM to 3 AM.
It’s the smell of hot paper, primer on receipts licking from
Printers. Lint, polyethylene bags, adhesive croaking off tape guns in sweeping
Strokes. Items, barcodes, mystery purchases picked on pallets and delivered by
Conveyors. Piqued curiosity about other people’s choices: That’s a nice backpack,
Awesome crossbow, a nifty pair of socks. Lots of heavy canopy
Tents, toilet buckets, inner tubes for the summer holiday this week.
Someone ordered nine 12-lb rocks. We sell vacuumed-packed sausage?
Who makes this vial of “skunk oil,” and why purchase it?
Summer nights are hot, kissed by indoor dust and a hint
Of forklift diesel, horns chirping as they ferry goods, racing, dancing
Down aisles between metal racks erected to the roof, brimming merchandise.
Between the bustle I learn new names, about families, struggles, goals,
Conditions in home countries. I’m weary. In my thoughts, my sphere
Of influence seems so meager. My time here is short. Temporary.
Anonymous to customers counting on me to package their newthings faithfully.
Challenging work, challenging hours, necessary tedium. Eager unboxings I’ll never see.
Aching hours on my feet, lifting, pumping pallet jacks. Building boxes
Out of scratch, scratching up my rapid fingers. Yet I feel
Built by others encouraging and confiding in me. This dusty smell
Is a secret blessing—The smallest details, and the shortest moments,
Open worlds of hearts and stories that make this little crossing
Of our lives matter more than muscle, time, and needing money.
Forgive me, forgetting names. I know your face. We shared dust
At the warehouse.
Sarah E. Seeley © 2021, All rights are reserved.
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I wrote this poem at the end of last summer when I worked a warehouse job, and I finally finished a version of the poem that I like. Hard, repetitive work at that job, but I loved my co-workers. Hope you enjoyed this!