Sandbagging in South St. Louis

Sand slopes upward
for blocks on blocks, mimicking
the floods, poisoned fish drift
across still water. We almost cannot
bear the smell that fills the city
and we swear, the heavens.

Cross town my father strikes
a deal, my friends prepare
their wedding, cross
town our house is safe and smells
of sage, but someone's stolen
the floodgate in East St. Louis
and Alton lies buried in water.

Here the sand spreads out
for blocks like afternoons on
beaches far from here where
sand was uncontainable and full
of treasure, we do not look for shells.

The unsoiled angels cannot stand
to watch our mass of sweaty brows, workers
shovelling in unison to make endless
pillows of sand, as if we've been racing like this
for years, forever building creaking levees
to ward the waters from our homes.

My mother and I blend with others
moving impossible piles of sand
once we find a shovel and a workspace
in the dunes. Nearby a woman holds
forth about the flood of ' 73 and how
her people lost their homes, how
can we live on such a river?

My pink hands hold strong but blister
early, not used to heavy labor.
Between her sunburnt legs
my mother holds a bag , its opening
too narrow to catch my shovel
full of earth. The load lands
on her lap, I try again, five small
shovels fill the bag, not too heavy
to be tossed to a weary woman
who ties it tight and throws it on
to those who toss what's handed
them to the overloaded truckbed.

The unaccusable angels watch,
we hear their sighs in the crunching
sand, they see we cannot stop
the floods, will not understand our need
to try. We work this hard because we see
in their chaste sublimity they
will not help us, unsullied, white, and floating,
they are not used to heavy labor.

--Suzanne L. Gillis