Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ternstedt Division, 1961

Here's a new poem I've been working on. The impetus behind it is, obviously, my father. He died when I was just eighteen. My parents had been separated for many years—I had long before assumed they were divorced, but the actual legal process occurred much later, when my father decided to remarry—and so my impressionable teen years were spent shuttling between Michigan, Virginia, and South Carolina, where I spent my summers with dad, and the last, with him and his new wife and step-daughter.

For many years after his untimely death from throat cancer, I “demonized” my father—not because he was mean or abusive, but because he spoke with a quintessential southern twang, and being an enlisted “lifer” in the Air Force, I came to believe that he must've been some kind of willing as well as enthusiastic cog in the big military-industrial complex, happily obeying orders, voting a straight Republican ticket, and warily eyeing neighbors for telltale signs that they were Communists, radicals or instigators, the kind of ne'er-do-wells who were busily tearing down the fabric of whitebread American life. The truth is likely to be found somewhere between that rather crass cliché and what I'd like to believe, as an enlightened adult, based on recollections of our time spent together. My dad was friendly, relaxed and casual, and displayed better musical taste then my mother, although at the time I was myself becoming cognizant of the more esoteric offerings available if one only browsed beyond the generic mega-marts, and I looked disdainfully upon his Linda Ronstadt, Eagles, and Waylon Jennings albums as remnants of an uncool fealty to dinosauric and more pedestrian listening pleasures.

I'm sure, given my angsty adolescence, that I also felt guilty, not because I was in any way responsible for his death, but because his Social Security benefits enabled me to go to college—something I had not planned to do, and scrambling at the last minute for the cash to do so required me to take out the dreaded student loans that only partially paid for my books and classes (and which I only—finally!—paid off two years ago). Those dependent benefits helped fill in the gaps, and each time I cashed one of the checks I was reminded—painfully—of where they came from. (My mother later spoke scarily of the origin of additional funds that arrived out of the blue: marked OMNIBUS PROGRAM, those checks were cut as some kind of settlement—read: hush money—for families of veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange. Agent Orange's link to cancer is undisputed.)

I also mistook my father's easygoing nature for a kind of willful stupidity; even if he had “brains,” he apparently never used them, segueing from a job as a shoprat to his gig as a Loadmaster in the USAF. What kind of a choice was that? To my innocent—OK, pretentious and uninformed—younger self, it would never have occurred that it may have been an economic choice, to offer stability to a young wife and new son. Even if that wasn't the reasoning, it was his life, and to a person considering a long-haul commitment to the stultifying effects of repetitive motion on an assembly line, the allure of visiting foreign lands—even if to bomb them, or drop weapons of mass destruction to be used on the ground for same—coupled with the promise of some kind of unpredictability on the job must have made his choice to enlist an easy one.

Ternstedt was General Motor's body hardware division. It operated for many years as a separate division but in 1969 it was absorbed by the Fisher Body Division (which had been its primary customer). I remembered my mother talking about my dad working there, and an old black-and-white snapshot of him holding a pay stub in the company of five other unsmiling cronies beneath a sign reading GAINFULLY EMPLOYED became the cover of my 1995 chapbook, Workers' Comp. His face betrays nothing, and I don't recall asking him about those years on the line in Flint; most likely, that was a time he preferred to forget, but I know if I'd only asked he would've probably talked at length about his experiences.

This poem actually began as a longer one, about my parents meeting. Since my mother died in 2006 I've had plenty of time to ponder all those memories, most of which I don't know with any certainty; so I decided to create them myself. I did a little research into Ternstedt, to confirm its location (between Saginaw Street and Dort Highway north of Coldwater Road), and other little details, such as the makes and models they would have been assembling that particular year. It may yet get expanded—I did start on its second part, but now that I've excised its opening, it seems to stand alone pretty well. When I was writing it, that was my intention—to make each part its own reward—but I'm not entirely sure I'm comfortable truncating that second, and possibly other parts, because that changes the entire scope of the poem as I originally envisioned it. But for now, I'm pleased with what it says and how it says it.

Ternstedt Division, 1961

My father twirls the window crank
like a steel noisemaker,
smacking it in his left palm
again and again—
because his father made him
write with his right
hand as a child—
in the rhythm of someone
who is bored or anxious,
or both. He stares out

through sooty glass
at Coldwater Road, past
an expansive parking lot
littered with LeSabres,
Impalas, Bonnevilles,
Wildcats, Corvairs—
a sea of made-in-America
pride, before Toyota,
before Volkswagen,
before those distinctions
seemingly mattered.

The grease beneath
his thumbnail is a black
crescent moon.
anticipates his date later,
already planning what
to wear, after scrubbing off
dirt and sweat and the stink
from sputtered sparks—
a metallic reek—erasing
the factory's tangible
funky tattoo, the fetor
of hardware and harder

The whistle blows
and before the foreman
invades the break room,
poking his buzz-cut head
around the corner, hoping
to catch idling workers
gambling or drinking
or worse, reading, my dad
pockets the handle and re-

turns to the line, where
Cadillac Eldorado door panels
glide by first shifters
standing side-by-side
with lifted screwdrivers
and wrenches like spoons
and forks at a holiday dinner,
pausing, waiting
for somebody to say grace.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Steve Gehrke's The Pyramids of Malpighi

At the behest of a friend, I read Steve Gehrke's “Secretarial School Graduation Dance, 1968” and really liked it. I looked into his available books, and even though he had a newer one I went with his second, where "Secretarial School Dance" was taken from, The Pyramids of Malpighi. It's no surprise Philip Levine chose this title for the 2002 Levine Prize; it's not that Gehrke writes 'like' Levine, though there is a camaraderie with, and a sympathy for the working class that each shares, and most importantly, which never amounts to chin-chucking or pedanticism. Both writing styles complement each other, and both poets employ a thematic reach that is laudatory while appearing wholly sincere—neither seems to grope for what they have to say, and if any groping occurred it was more in how to say it, during the writing process, and such rummaging has since been absorbed or trickled away, like watery runoff after a storm.

There's only eighteen poems in The Pyramids of Malpighi, but at eighty pages it doesn't feel slight. The book is anchored by two longer poems that mirror each other, the title poem and “Inside the Dialysis Machine.” The book is broken into four section—the first and third with seven and nine poems respectively, the second and fourth comprised of the aforementioned anchor poems. In “The Invention of Pointillism,” Gehrke establishes certain motifs that are to recur throughout the book—science and spirituality, birth and death—while linking Seurat's painting, The Circus, done in the titular style, a reproduction of which appears in the poem on one of its characters' walls, with his own poetic style, or at least the style chosen here with which to deliver the poem. By that I mean, like Pointillism, which is a cousin of Impressionism, in which tiny dots of primary-colors are used to generate secondary colors, Gehrke's work can be prismatic, image-wise, but it can also introduce primary images that give way to secondary ones:

Once, in the apartment of a woman I barely knew,
in a room made of blurred light and ashes
with carpet the color of very old newspaper,
I began to believe love was a collection of sighs
and small gestures that flew off as we move. (7)

Consider, as noted above, in the poem's first stanza, the setting of a strange apartment, barely known, leading to “blurred light and ashes”—indistinction—carpet colored like “very old newspaper” as faded memories, hazy words; love as “a collection of sighs,” minute emotions separated into small moments; even “small gestures” that “flew off”—dissipated, into the ether. All of this, working together to, in a way, fabricate a verbal Pointillism, to give us a sense of the room with its parts but also the room as a whole. That Gehrke does what he does with such a high level of skill makes reading these poems 'easy,' in an immediate way, but afterward little depth charges begin going off, compelling the reader to go back over what has just been read in order to find the oblique details.

In terms of style, Gehrke here proves to be, if not restless in an adroit way, then cognizant of ways in which to best serve each poem. Perhaps they began differently, but the cumulative end result is a treat for the eyes, as well as ears: there's step lines and regulated patterns of indentation, as well as stanzaic variety and even prose poems—a form that, like Bigfoot I wonder if it really exists? But Gehrke pulls it off, because the language is 'poetic' enough to both keep the book's flow going, while breaking it up in deceptive ways.

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