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American Life in Poetry: 'Custodians'

Seventy years ago, when I entered Beardshear Elementary in Ames, Iowa, the school employed a custodian, Mr. Shockley, who had for an office a closet under the stairs. I wish I could thank him for mopping up all our vomit and helping us buckle our galoshes.

Here’s a fine poem about custodians by David Livewell, from New Jersey, whose most recent book of poems is Shackamaxon (Truman State Univ. Press, 2012).


Retired from other trades, they wore

Work clothes again to mop the johns

And feed the furnace loads of coal.

Their roughened faces matched the bronze

Of the school bell the nun would swing

To start the day. They limped but smiled,

Explored the secret, oldest nooks:

The steeple’s clock, dark attics piled

With inkwell desks, the caves beneath

The stage on Bingo night. The pastor

Bowed to the powers in their hands:

Fuses and fire alarms, the plaster

Smoothing a flaking wall, the keys

To countless locks. They fixed the lights

In the crawl space above the nave

And tolled the bells for funeral rites.

Maintain what dead men made. Time blurs

Their scripted names and well-waxed floors,

Those keepers winking through the years

And whistling down the corridors.

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American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2014 by David Livewell, “Custodians,” from Southwest Review (Vol. 99, no. 2, 2014). Poem reprinted by permission of David Livewell and Southwest Review. Introduction copyright © 2015 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-06.



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