The Handwashing Clinic                                                       by Robert Stewart

     If a snake had hands, he’d swear
            his hands were clean.
                —Wislawa Szymborska
To wash our hands is now the saving
of the race, and don’t forget the thumbs,
says Dr. Gupta on the news,
no trace of Pilate’s thumbs
down to the silent king, disciples 
pleading to wash their own hands 
of the problem, until they’re bleeding.
He’s Herod’s race.
Put your fingers through the Lava 
lather of fingers on the other hand,
back and front, so yes, check both
            sides of a thing
if you can bear it 20 seconds
in the measure of a day, which is
to say maybe the unwashed could 
use a hand
not sanitizers, and who has a right 
to Softsoap, now, from the big refill 
bottles would be all of us apostles, 
brothers, unseen sisters, 
as in my sewer-worker days we’d 
forgo the elbow-high rubber gloves 
and dip hands into the open
ditch’s flow of feces
bumping against our rubber boots 
with rubbers, spittle, corn, all things
a sewer worker could straddle 
in a ditch to open
sanitary lines.  We’d unglove it
among the close-up pieces of our own
humanity.  We’d wash hands in it 
but not of it. 

Robert Stewart’s latest book of poems is Working Class (2018, Stephen F. Austin State Univ.); his latest collection of essays is The Narrow Gate: Writing, Art & Values (2014, Serving House).  For many years, he edited New Letters quarterly, at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Guest editor, Denise Low, Kansas Poet Laureate 2007-09, is winner of a Red Mountain Press’s Editor’s Choice Award for Shadow Light. A new book of poetry from Red Mountain is Wing. Other recent books are The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family’s Story of Lenape Survival (a memoir, U. of Nebraska Press); Casino Bestiary (Spartan Press); and Jackalope, fiction (Red Mountain). She founded the Creative Writing Program at Haskell Indian Nations University, where she taught and was an administrator. Low is past board president of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs. She has won 3 Kansas Notable Book Awards and recognition from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Sequoyah National Research Center, Poetry Society of America, The Circle -Best Native American Books, Roberts Foundation, Lichtor Awards, and the Kansas Arts Commission. Low has an MFA from Wichita St. U. and Ph.D. from Kansas U. Her website is, and her literary blog is .


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