Friday, December 30, 2016

Working-Class Poet Laureate

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 77
Jim Daniels, Show and Tell: New and Selected Poems

Poet Jim Daniels worked at a Detroit auto plant to pay his way through graduate school. Now an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University, he has a dual-lens perspective on cultural issues and the conflict between classes. In an America where “white working class” has become a powerful, inflammatory demographic group, tapping that perspective has possibilities for freeing the discussion about where we, as a people, move forward.

This perspective also makes for great art. This book collects from eight of Daniels’ previous poetry collections, with eleven poems not available elsewhere. He writes in a plain-English style which many university poets espouse verbally, but which few actually practice. One gets the feeling he hopes to attract an audience of his fellow Detroit workers, without the patronizing academic practice of explaining blue-collar citizens back to themselves:
Bush idles over from his broken press
big pot sticking out tight
under a white t-shirt
gray hair slicked back, perfect.
He bends toward me and stares
at my greasy coveralls. I sweat
behind the washer, tossing
Axle housings onto pallets.

Hey, look at me. Am I dirty?
Am I sweating?
You gotta learn how to survive
around here, kid. If you don’t know
how to break your machine
then you shouldn’t be running it.
He spits on the floor, wanders away.

“Where I’m At: Factory Education”
Jim Daniels
The brief patter, reflecting the kind of language workers can slip in between outbursts from noisy machines, will sound familiar to anybody who has struggled under the weight of industrialized labor. Strictly noun-verb, with no words over two syllables, it has a structural hurry completely at odds with an obese man “idling over” from a stopped machine. It reflects the almost-liturgical language rites of working long shifts in an enclosed, windowless factory.

Speaking from experience, I attest, factory workers have their own group identity (as most employment demographics do). They don’t just do factory work, they are factory workers. They find ways to express this shared identity through the rituals they practice surrounding their equipment, their co-workers, their daily routines. Maybe that’s why they repeat familiar social and political patterns, because their identity requires community integrity:
Machine, I come to you over 800 times a day
like a crazy monkey lover:
in and out, in and out, in and out.

And you, you hardly ever break down,
such clean welds, such sturdy parts.
Oh how I love to oil your tips.

Machine, come home with me tonight.
I’ll scrub off all the stains on your name,
grease and graffiti.

I’m tired of being your part-time lover.
Let me carry you off
into the night on a hi-lo.

That guy on midnights,
I know he drinks,
and beats you.

“Factory Love”
Until you’ve worked an overnight shift operating a single machine, melding your body to its requirements, you must trust the authenticity of Jim Daniels’ depiction.

Daniels’ first several books excerpted here translate blue-collar experience into the language of university poets. Subsequently, as his life moves into education, his focus shifts. Many later poems translate arts and educated culture into the language of working-class citizens. The best examples come from his Blue Jesus poems, inspired by the painter Francis Bacon, whose electric, gestural canvases combine abstract and realistic themes in ways that take some getting used to. Here, Daniels responds to Bacon’s “Yellow Jesus”:
Can you keep a secret? I have seen halos around the heads
of beautiful women. Okay, shoot me
with a well-intentioned folk song—
I’m telling the truth
till it hurts: I love the body.
I love the sonic boom boom
of the heart after skin touches skin.
Rather than merely describe the painting, that lazy fallback of inexperienced MFA students, Daniels describes the experience of witnessing the painting. Anybody could Google a well-known artist’s paintings and say what they look like; Daniels shares how they feel, how a viewer unversed in the ways of “fine art” could learn to appreciate an artist whose most iconic works are often inscrutable. His focus has shifted from his early verse, but he’s still a cultural translator.

Having done factory work, and having taught university English, I can attest the two cultures are often deaf to one another, and need a translator. There are only so many people like Jim Daniels and me; we can’t be everywhere. But a book like this, shared by people across the cultural divide, could help bridge the two groups. If we had shared language, we could speak in poetry, without fearing one another.

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