When I went to Bonn to study a semester
and learn the language, face-to-face,
I met my father’s people for the first time,
and hitchhiked to Darmstadt to meet Giovanni,
his youngest brother, the immigrant welder.
He resembled my dad, but a much younger version,
shorter and lighter, and after we shook hands
he turned over my hands to examine the palms,
then declared, in German, “Intellectual,” and grinned,
to tease me perhaps, and to show me my place.
At this moment of greetings, he saw a youth
who thought for a living, whose hands were as smooth
as pure white paper, perhaps even as soft as a priest’s,
and I vowed that I’d work till my hands turned to callus,
I’d fall asleep in my clothes, learn to get dirty.
He taught me to weld, how to melt metal to metal,
how to cut plate steel as thick as a thumb
and leave only a ripple resembling a scar,
how to clamp down on the arc, pulsing with power
like a bolt of pure energy some demon might wield.
I recalled Greek myth, the kid stories I devoured
about heroes and failure, when my arc simply slipped
down a few inches and burned through the black glove
right down to a nail: my middle finger poked through
with a neat hole, and a smell like burnt hair, almost sweet.
My uncle stood over me, grinning again; in the din
of the factory he spoke precisely, in German,
one word that I knew and knew in my bones:
“Caution,” he said, but the word sounds like “Foresight:
Look ahead when you toil, look out but not back.”