Dust to Dust

By David Baker b. 1954 David Baker

Footfalls on the brickwork road many fathers laid   
by hand and heavy mallet make a sandy sound.   
You can hear, in the dusted scuff, a kind of gasp   
as from the crumpled lungs of those bent double   
by depression, by wagonloads of work—
you can hear huffs of hot wind kick the dust
around them. You can feel the brickwork give.

This is how the town found a way from starving.
Three summers running: nothing but dust rained down   
to choke out cornfields and wheat. The council   
paid any man driven to his knees to lay
a road from here to Cedar City to keep working.   
They tapped in bricks from the limekiln one season.   
They turned each one one-quarter twist the next.


All night, so far, I have waited for the train to come   
calling through a cotton curtain on its breeze.

It always does—low as a mourning dove long minutes   
over the far, darkening fields and many trees.

How huge the world must be to hear so far   
beyond the shade, beyond the grasp of night.

There are apple boughs brushing my fine screen lightly.   
And a dozen stars, I know, like pinpricks on an arm.

Before it stops, a train will hiss, grind, clatter   
all the way back while its car-locks bang.

Then the engine at idle—hubbub, wood smoke,   
and trouble in the hobo camp below the trestle.

How sad the world is to hear nothing for so long.   
It always comes. Sweet night wind like cider.


I was watching the road where his car went   
and thirty years burned off, as in a drop of oil.   
I was scanning for dust on the rise, a cartoon

cowboy’s gallop. It’s where he drove each morning   
off to work somewhere hard with the road crew—
he returned each evening, burned and hurt.

I have a good life and hands too soft for labor.   
Who would guess it takes this long to come home?   
All week I have checked the old road, as if

nothing had come to pass—jars of peaches pinging   
on the kitchen sill, her voice like silverware.   
I was playing with a soldier and blue truck.

There’s a road to everywhere, the song sweeps on.   
I am watching the road where the car drove.


You can feel the brickwork give beneath your step.   
Each such shift in sand and balanced earth   
is kindred to the world’s intrinsic drift.
Cars kick up a clatter, rumbling down the road—
their tires grind brick to brick, turn dust to dust.   
When a truck goes by, the whole street quakes.   
You can feel your life begin to shake.


Hanging primrose breeze. Haze of barbeque.
The many children quieted by baths, put to bed—

they wait for the locusts’ buzz and homing trains.
One lone bat recurrent in the streetlamp glow.

Four blocks down the road gives way to asphalt blacktop.   
But here the block stamp macon brick hasn’t rubbed off

the red clay bars the many fathers wrecked   
their knees to pack tightly back into earth.

How small a world it is to want such work.
I will come here only once more to lie down too,

having lived to praise one thing made so well   
it sings with each slow passage, rimmed

with sleepers safe in all their loved and many beds.   
Flowers line every sidewalk down the breathing road.

David Baker, “Dust to Dust” from The Truth About Small Towns. Copyright © 1998 by David Baker. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Arkansas Press, www.uapress.com .

Source: The Truth about Small Towns (University of Arkansas Press, 1998)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet David Baker b. 1954

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Subjects Social Commentaries, Money & Economics, Jobs & Working, Activities

 David  Baker


Though he is known primarily as a poet of the Midwest, David Baker was born in Bangor, Maine in 1954. He spent his childhood in Missouri and attended Central Missouri State University before receiving his PhD from the University of Utah. He has won fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, the Pushcart Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Currently a Professor of English . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Social Commentaries, Money & Economics, Jobs & Working, Activities

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.