Best not to imagine your love dead
or to put literature ahead of life.
Best not to write certain things down.
—from “Cartas de Amor”
If forced to write a narrative log-line for Mather Schneider’s A Bag of Hands, Rattle Poetry’s 2017 Chapbook Prize selection, it would be simple: Cab driver marries Mexican, life ensues. But that is veneer. This twelve-poem, thirty-one-page collection layers a cross-border love story, battling the absurdities of immigration policy, into a hope-giving romance that illuminates daily epiphanies. Economic and minimal, while sweeping the micro into the macro, Schneider’s writing lands somewhere between a Tom Waits’s lyric sung by a ranchero who has read Bukowski, and a Californian rom-com. Avoiding the possible pitfalls of cliché, such as the white American as savior complex; the bitter, working class, underdog syndrome; or sappy melodrama, A Bag of Hands holds up ignorance and love side by side, leaving a heart-rendering optimistic aftertaste.
In “41st Birthday” the speaker warms up his cab at 5 a.m.:
I drive to MacDonald’s in the dark
where Josie is already working
the breakfast shift.
She gives me a coffee and a smile.
This is how we met
3 years ago.
Feliz Cumpleanos, mi nino, she says.
Gracias, mi amor.
The speaker gets a flat tire, changes it. The coffee is cold, drinks it. He’s late for a pick-up, gets stopped by a long train “like a border crossing.” He admits fear, but never defeat, the poem concluding as the train cars strobe past:
41 years old
of the other side.
Both “Flank Steak My Ass” and “Consequences” are eavesdropping poems. The speaker is driving while coded racism bombards him from the backseat clients. Cinematic in telling, “At the stop sign I stop / a little too long,” the reader cannot but cringe at what people say when they think they are alone, or entitled to privilege as they are paying customers, or even worse, that “their” driver concurs with their blatant ignorance or systemized bigotry. Schneider points out these daily conflicts with subtly, empathy, and redeeming work ethic. Suspense is built by wondering what the speaker is going to do. What would you do? What do you do in the face of prejudice? As driver, poet, observer, and chronicler, the underlying faith in love in the midst of human ridiculousness gives pleasure and hope.
In “Chasing the Green Card,” after waiting two years, the couple who have applied exit their interview without an answer, not even a date for the answer. The process is dehumanizing:
not a plant
nothing on the walls,
[ . . . ]
no water allowed,
no food, they barely
Even if the reader has never been through an immigration process, it’s an airport, a police station, a prison, the alienating and cruel government face shown to taxpaying citizens. Describing bureaucratic sadism makes a good poem sure, but seeing the glass half-full makes it better:
You want to kill him and wonder
who is more insane,
him or you,
which is more absurd
his life or yours
and you leave the building
and stand in the sun
and hug your wife
as she cries.
There’s still hope, you say, he
didn’t say no.
Pessimism, anger, violence, and rage are all easy choices. Yes, we all must go through them, and Schneider does in most of the poems, but turning that frown upside down through patience, insight, and empathy is what makes each of the twelve poems stand alone with brilliance and stand together with excellence.
Rattle’s editor, Timothy Green, must also be given an ovation for the slick, appealing design, and for choosing A Bag of Hands as winner. With four previous full-length collections and hundreds of stories and poems published, Mather Schneider has, at least in my books, climbed from anonymous driver to top my to-read-next list. Next time you step into a taxi, or go through a drive-through window, or hear your loved-one singing in the shower, think of how full and glorious each day can be.