I am interested in almost any writing about work (as in the exchange of time spent in goal-oriented activity for wages) and also in the work of crafting long poems, so I was drawn immediately to “After Work,” a poem in 20 brief sections by Martha Collins:
Rest for all who labor, work for, build
our houses, pave our streets, nurse
the fallen on our streets, those
who cannot anymore, not one
day off but all shut out unhoused
upon our streets unnursed unheard
in this our country’s right to work
I don’t think I’ve read another description of the current state of work in any genre that captures as brilliantly (not to mention economically) the cultural, social, political phenomena that have merged to create the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and which have created a whole class of people we nonsensically and offensively refer to as “the working poor” (a phrase that later, as it happens, turns up in the poem).
Anyone who questions the ability of poetry, in the hands of a master poet, to use its unique and irreplaceable tools to the service (and I use these work terms deliberately) art and “politics” (in the broadest possible interpretation), will surely rethink that assumption on reading “After Work.” It would not matter to me what else were in the issue, it would be worth reading for this piece alone. Happily, though, Collins’s poem is accompanied by many others and several stories of equal skill and impact.
The TOC is impressive as always: Alice Hoffman, Hadara Bar-Nadav, Marge Piercy, Nance Van Winckel, Flyod Skloot, Jesse Lee Kercheval, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Alice Friman, Maria Mazziotti Gilan, Eamon Grennan, and David Wagoner. The issue features another long poem, Greg Alan Brownderville’s “Lord Make Me a Sheep,” a poem of a dozen pages in twelve parts, the story of a community of worshippers and their personal plights as remembered from childhood experience, which combines narrative verse lines, dialogue, and invented radio script. Here is an excerpt from the poem’s final section:
The other day I found a pad I scribbled in when I was ten or twelve.
One page said, Greg Alan Brownderville is a boy who is:
and then it listed words I loved.
So, Lord, all these years later, I beseech you,
make me a boy who is coal, swiss, cream, spearmint,
product, capitol, bar, marl,
quo, tap, bot, doll, roll, mat, solicitous, ma'am,
pie, toy, mellifluous, immitigable, Lord.
Make me the Choctaw hunters on the Alabama River, eating maize
granted by Unknown Woman, Daughter of the Great Spirit.
Turn me into a spearmint done by top-notch scientists.
Make me a dastardly bastardly son of a bitch, Lord,
or, better yet, a rainbow roll at the sushi bar.
Distinctly different from these longer pieces are Peggy Shumaker’s slender, elegant poems, which include “Tucked Deep among Tangled Roots”:
In mangrove swamp,
one tree flowers.
One tree opens
in white blossom.
And one bird,
one tiny bird
whirring so fast
we nearly miss
her green blur,
treats the flower
as if her life
depends on it
Buttressed tea mangrove flower, mangrove humming bird
I like the “caption” concept enormously (the text is small print under the think verses), which lends the poem a museum-like or photo album sensibility, the picture – literally, then – of one moment in nature.
Joseph Campana’s “Rural Evening,” another marvelous composition in this issue, also considers the topic of work:
Nature isn’t cruel it just
doesn’t know when to quit.
Neither did hundreds of
workers at the Rolls-Royce
plant in Mount Vernon, so
the company did it for them,
gradually, so the gesture would
be sad and necessary but
complete like the reluctant
setting of the sun in another
string of inevitable evenings.
Prose selections include four solid short stories, my favorite of which is David Samuel Levinson’s, “Gut Renovation,” whose first line demonstrates his impressive ability to craft an immensely satisfying sentence:
Some people I have known left things behind out of pure haste and some simply because they forgot where they’d put them all. And then, there were others – like Faisal Hussein – who left things behind on purpose just to ask for them back later. Which he eventually did, but only after we’d found a home for them.
The issue also includes one essay, Tracy Seeley’s “Cartographies of Change,” a personal account of merging of two unhappy ruptures in routine and self-perception:
Seven months earlier, I’d been a woman living with a man, on the ground floor of a Victorian house, inside a so-called perfect life. Then the doctor said, cancer. The next day, the man said, I’m in love with someone else. I said, oh.
It’s astonishing when it happens, the thing that happens to other people. The car crash, the missing child, the explosion, the cancer, the jilt. The cliché. The earth tilts on its axis, the sun forgets to rise, the map you trusted is useless, shows you places that don’t even exist anymore. Now where are you? Where did you go?
I am writing this review from the couch where I sit, legs elevated to relieve the pain, nursing a fractured hip (“it’s astonishing when it happens, the thing that happens to other people”), and I am, therefore, doubly impressed and moved by Seely’s wonderful essay. These days journals are overflowing with personal essays about the experience of illness – not to mention broken hearts – but few pieces are as un-self-pitying and engaging as this one.
It takes no work at all to love this issue of Prairie Schooner.