Posts Tagged ‘Blue Collar Review’

So much reportage these days focuses on the high tech and financial worlds, it’s nice to have the Blue Collar Review to put us back in touch with the hard workers who built it all, those with integrity making their way in a hostile world.

“Then there was my Dad,” Robert Cooperman writes in “The Men in Our Apartment House,” “a blocker in the millenary (sic.) trade, / his hands… and arms / a drunken spider’s web / of scars and burns.” So much of life is tougher than our myths admit. We all hope to actualize ourselves, to find meaningful work. But there’s a reason they pay us, and there are hard realities out there, and these poems reflect that, honoring, as Cooperman does, those who went before.

Steve Hartman understands this well. “Junior Management Trainee starts, “Where are all the glamorous groovy jobs / you see in sitcoms that require no experience…?” This is a wry and amusing view of truth versus image. “I’m tired of working with idiotic sidekicks…”, but “the Personnel Director…wants to know…what makes me more qualified / than the two thousand other applicants…” Humor arises from truth, right? So it would seem here.

These poems can be downright harsh, as they challenge us. Sarah M. Lewis starts out her poem, “Owned,” with: “Bosses want you / to understand they own you… not just the time you’re paid for… weekends, holidays, after work hours.” This poem cries out for justice, with a sense that the worker must battle for dignity and right.

Yet there is beauty as well. In Olivia Inwood’s “Artist,” we have: “Trains curling around the rocks / and broken masterpieces / blown up by a cannon.” Many different occupations join in the struggle. “art for the working class / art in and of this land”

And also, Jeffrey Alfier’s “The Back Porch at Carter’s Brewery in Billings.” “I hear an empty / beer can rattle over the rails, / blown along by a southerly wind.” A lonesome sound, maybe the essence of these poems right there.

Finally, at the core of it all, we see the relationships between people. In Holly Day’s “The Last Day:” “I watch my son packing his bags and I have to leave… no, I can’t help him because… I can only think of how to fold him / back into the infant he once was.” An archetypal moment for so many of us: “I want / to find some way to do all this over…” Sweet and sad. (Oh, and notice the pun on her own last name).

Very much an issue worth perusing.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

Missouri Review – Winter 2017

The New Yorker – Jan 22 2018

Rattle 58 – Winter 2017



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One of the joys of the Blue Collar Review is the straightforward, emotional nature of the poems. You know where you stand, no fadiddling, as my Dad would have said.

Michael Collonnese starts this issue out with a great poem, “In Concrete,” about an early job. “When the motor on the ancient cement truck quit turning its tub.” it begins. We’re given the problem, then the challenge. “Someone had to crawl inside…and scrape the sides… As I was the youngest…I was the least valuable.” There is something satisfying about poetry that confronts life like this, its conflicts and ironies, not often available in more academic tomes. But this poem is not simply a recitation of a situation, the poet turns this into a larger reflection of life, in a beautiful deepening at the end.

Fran Markover also reflects on work she had in “Jelly Doughnuts.” “I once was in charge of them, thick pillows…” Very apt. Never thought of doughnuts as pillows, but the metaphor feels perfect. We’re brought in the moment with marvelous details. “I’d carry the metal pastry syringe,” and “the cauldrons and spillage of Albert’s Bakery.” Then she compares that work to current work: “when patients reveal…psychic wounds… I wish I could offer / something more satisfying than nods.” A good way to reveal the practical worth of such work.

We also learn of work maybe we’d never thought much about, as in Winston Derden’s “Thieves.” “The light head, sense of spinning / come from heat and dehydration…” I like that, starting with the danger, pulling us into the poem. Only then do we begin to catch a sense of what the work is: “detached stingers add / their heart-rending toxins… robbing bees in July Texas / down a brown loam trail.” We feel ourselves there, we empathize. Then a cold-hearted moment at the end gives us a jolt of irony, a sense of injustice. Nicely done.

Al Markowitz has a tough little poem in here about the current scene, “Gigged.” “Have you been gigged? / You know, the post jobs / gig economy…” It’s tough out there, I know it, this poem says. Listen to us, hear the need for change. “no sick pay or holidays, no / x-mas bonus…” We’re left with sadness after the closing double-meaning line.

Finally, Mary Franke gives us “Can’t Work For Nothing, Can’t Live On It,” which uses humor to make her point. “I do it myself or don’t get it done / it kills cars and me?” Love the kind of painful amusement in that. The mechanic does not seem helpful here. “we don’t even touch / the dipstick we pass a / wand over your junker and it / twinkles if we want to sell / you a Twazzen…” Of course, how often won’t they want to sell you a Twazzen? But the poem reveals a relatively desperate situation, the humor only highlights the trouble. Well done.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

Hummingbird 27.2

The Missouri Review – Fall 2017

Blue Collar Review – Spring 17

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The more I review poetry magazines, the more I can see editors lead with what they consider their best poem. Makes sense. In this issue, that’s “Working the Register at K-Mart” by Zara Raab. “She angles just so her forceps / in the black threads that tangle / around the action DVDs.” Blue Collar poems show people at work, probably more so than all the other magazines I read put together. I like how the word order highlights the meaning… the ‘just so’ in a spot not exactly unnatural, but considered. It’s an ode to a retail clerk, and its language is plainspoken. “coughing up the phlegm / of a last cigarette.” But it’s tender, too. “enclosed in what I might call love.” A wonderful, quiet poem.

Scott Blackwell gives us “Footnote,” continuing a theme of poems about the retail experience. “I run into this small grocery store… to make an excellent soul food feast tonight…rice, greens, yeah.” These poems bathe in the specific. “is it only / my own surly glum and boredom?” A nice play of words, as well. The focus of this poem is the resonance between today and previous times, though, as presented in an old photograph. “I walk past the large blow-up / of an old black and white photograph, circa 1930.” The narrator feels history alive today: “I feel somehow that we here… are already up there on that wall.” A nice elegy of days gone by, we might think, except the shared experience is more how difficult life was then, and still is. A grounded poem, and all the more powerful for that.

In “Hear the Wind Blow,” Krikor Der Hohannesian riffs on the ecological effects of the steel industry. “1953, westbound from Boston…we hadn’t yet reached Gary but / you could smell it for miles out…” I remember driving past Gary back in the day, with its hovering plumes of pink and green and brown smog. It was a ghastly stench. “the sickly sweet / of sulfur and God knows what else.” But the narrator gets closer to the action than I ever did. “the blast furnaces / aroar with white-hot heat…the Bessemer converters / ridding pig iron of impurities.” Such attention to detail gives the poem great effectiveness. The poem is dedicated to John Beecher, an activist poet who worked in the steel industry, and that plays in at the turn. “I think of Beecher, his poems…who knew good steel by the look of it.” And it concludes with a encapsulation of Beecher’s life, a shout-out to the struggle of labor against overlords.

Paired with that poem is the next, “Smelter Shelter,” by Neal Wilgus. “I was probably eight or nine / when I began to understand… the smoke was down / and we had to stay inside.” It is interesting to consider how often blue-collar labor and environmental degradation went hand-in-hand, and how the hardest costs were so often borne by the workers and their families. “the thick cloud / of sulfur dioxide…from the copper smelter.” A poem to make you think.

Gil Fagiani wrote “Don Antonio,” about how the travails of labor carry on from generation to generation. “Don Antonio sits on a bench…He talks about working in a fireworks factory.” It is rough work. “Sometimes the ball overheated / and Don Antonio… asked if it was OK / shut shut down the machine / to…cool off…the boss always shook his head no.” And the cost? “workers with their clothes on fire…their skin melted.” The heartbreaking part of this poem isn’t just the cost to him and his coworkers, but that his daughter has gone to work in the same factory, and faces the same unimproved dangers.

Finally, roibeard gives us “Sticks & Stones,” which is a mix of fun and grim. “Friday night, / a skeleton is arrested for quietly protesting.” Seems the skeleton has a social conscience, but knows his rights. “He’s…vigorously exercising his right to remain silent.” Not that it helps. “everyone can identify him.” Using humor to advance the cause is an old-time tactic, of course, but nevertheless doesn’t grow old.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

Blue Collar New Holler

The Stars Our Destination

Blue Collar Winter 17




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In the Winter 2016/17 Blue Collar Review, Kyle Heger gives us a tough little poem, “Look Me in the Name Tag” “…when you say that, Brother. / Don’t bother with my eyes.” The narrator feels like a cog in the machine of his company. “The / name tag is the only game in town.” The play on the idea that men should look women in the eyes when they speak, for me adds to the irony and weight of the poem, that the eyes “…might as well be blasted sockets.”

I very much enjoyed the poem, “I Was That Man You Saw,” by Flo Oy Wong. “moving around on the palleted floor of the…restaurant…my glasses greasy, slipping down my nose.” Two people here see each other at a distance. “That was you I saw on Wednesdays…with your Baba and Mama…after going to see the Lone Ranger.” It’s a prose poem, and very effective. The sadness is understated, the loneliness palpable, but the poem flips some reader expectations on their heads: “In my room I did not mind the thick musty air.” Such foreshadowing makes the reverse at the end much more effective.

“Floor Scrubber” by Victor Pearn raises a smile, but a rueful one, not amused. “mopping floors for a / home improvement store // is like…trying to row across the ocean // dirt rises in swells.” A short poem with a very punchy ending.

“Merging,” by Alice E. Rogoff,” also struck me. “In Bolerium Books, / I find old union documents…The Women’s Bindery Union.” The poem records differences between those times and ours. “In 1917 the women didn’t have the Federal vote.” But some things do not much change. “Men per week $51 Women per week $25.” A very effective commentary on a struggle far older than the 100 years this poem reaches back to reference.

Finally, I liked the poem, “The Teeth of Jesus,” by Fred Voss — maybe worth it for the name alone? ;-> “we file back into the factory where the little plastic Christmas / tree…sits unplugged.” Such common images, plainly stated, give this poem great effectiveness. “Rex says, ‘You’ve heard of sleepwalking? Well. I’m sleepworking.'” There is much poignancy, and a sense of what has been lost. “Once / we had unions, once we got raises, once…our children could afford to move out.” But life marches on. “We grit our teeth and grab our wrenches.” A powerful poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ and with other fine retailers.

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Haven’t seen a newer issue, so there’s still time to blog this, right? ;->

I like the poem, “Not Impressed,” by Mike Faran, a poem that holds up the paraphernalia of success for a squint-eyed view. “I told my wife…they had given me my own office.” “She asked if I had my name on the door…I told her they couldn’t remember my name…” It’s dryly amusing, as the narrator and his wife go back and forth about how he’s doing in the work world.

Susan Yarborough gives us “Onion Rings,” a sweet poem about working a hamburger joint. “Behind the plate glass…The air is thick with the shout / Of orders and hot oil.” That nice turn of phrase puts us in the scene instantly. Then the central character is introduced: “she stands / Before the shiny metal table, / Long knife in hand…Sweat circles her armpits.” It’s a blunt, blue collar view indeed. Which gives it power. In the second stanza, she leaves her work. “the odors / Stalk her to the bus stop / Like a jealous lover.” Great phrase. So far this is a beautifully drawn rendition of her life. But it’s at the end of the poem, with the sudden expansion of her life, that we truly see the power of the poem, and how moving it is. Very nice.

Winston Derden has a poem that gives us two characters living together, in “Living Wage.” Part of the power of the poem arises because the relationship between the two is not clearly spelled out, so the import of the narrative becomes ambiguous. And the definition of character through understatement is very slick. “I was surprised to find Clyde / on the … couch in the middle of the afternoon….’Got fired again,’ he exhaled.” The explanation of why Clyde got fired seems to put the blame on Clyde’s cantankerousness. “I had to broach the question, / ‘Got a job lined up…?” Such a realistic scenario, delicately handled. Great poem.

It’s difficult, I think, to pull off a longer poem without getting gassy, but in “Lake County,” Joseph S. Pete takes a good shot at it. “Steelmaker for the world, / Or at least North America, / Forgotten appendage of Chicago…” And indeed, the poem reminds us of Sandburg’s “Chicago,” rolling out a similar list of attributes, but updated for a new century. “Flourescent-lit warehouse floors glisten.” It is a more tentative world now, and the poem reflects this, but still there is pride of place. “Lake County, / You built 20th century America…You boned the skeletons of skyscrapers.” And the defiance is still there. “Indiana wants no part of us…” And a most satisfactory ending.

Lastly, let me mention “The Tet Offensive,” by J.R. Connolly. “All that winter, snow owned the valley.” So the poem begins in a conversational, confident tone, a rural tale, leavened by irony and understatement. “We thought we were rich and the Walkers poor. / I worked our farm every day after school.” It shows what I like to call breath control, the ability of the poet to pace the poem beautifully, to a rising effect. And I love this: “My mother…prayed for the country. / She prayed for the ‘Papists and Jews.’…She tended her husband till the tumor took him.” We know this woman, we know these people. It is a sad poem, ultimately. “Donny came home in a flag and the salute of rifles…” So powerful. And the images deepen at the end, and the loss grows deeper. And the last line is heartbreaking. A poem very much worth reading.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

The Cape Rock – 45.2

The New Yorker – Oct 30 17

Convergence Online – Fall 2017

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Reading the Winter issue of Blue Collar Review, I was struck once again by how raw the poetry is, how rooted in common troubles. This is not a place to find erudite abstractions, nor the faint irony of a delicate metaphor. It’s a place for blunt truths and shared emotions. The first poem I’ll mention here is “The Three Personalities of Water,” by David Gross. “In our coal town, insulation was / a luxury…water lines froze.” I love the immediacy of the narration. “With propane torches stuffed under our coats…we crawled through drafty…crawlspace.” The shared memory of doing practical things around the house. Wriggling through small areas, a seriousness of purpose. For me it creates a sense of solidarity, that we’re all in this together, with hope out in front: “Listening closely for sounds of melting ice…”

Kyle Heger has a wry take on the world in, “I Haven’t Pleased Enough Machines Today.” Who has not felt at the mercy of the machines in our world? “My fingers couldn’t / make themselves understood on / my cell phone’s touch screen.” As I get older, I am struck by how many machines seem designed by the young, for the young. Arthritis is not taken into account, nor palsy. It leaves millions alienated, and doesn’t improve their view of the young tyros living without consideration of others, I suspect. “God help me: Even though / I had dutifully checked out all my / books…the alarms went off.” The machines watch us, suspicious, resentful, unforgiving. Does anyone else feel this? A great poem.

I like Matthew J. Spireng’s short poem, “Five Minutes.” “It only takes five minutes, my boss / tells me… as he adds another duty.” A quick-in, quick-out poem that quickly wrings emotion out of us, along with recognition. Yes, we all know that feeling.

“Chasing Rainbows in Scranton,” by Mike Faran, is another poem worth checking out. It starts out, “Thunder was kicking in the / corner…” What a great, ambiguous image. We can stop right there and get a sense of the earth of the place, of people at the mercy of greater powers. In this case, it’s a dog. “my girl laughed / and said “wonder what…he’s chasing now.” But there’s a true poignancy to this tale, as we follow it deeper. “she looked down at her coffee cup, / her laughter and smile gone…” But ultimately a story of hope, and love. Very much worth a good rereading.

Ryan Peeters brings back an old memory for me with his poem, “Hard To Work For.” It starts, “Prompt Staffing asked for an immediate drug test.” You know right away this is going to be a poem with the bark on. “At week six and a half, payday, / the big boss handed out checks… ‘you are all being let go.’ // Leonard…took his check and left before the big boss was done talking.” I also have the memory of layoffs, of coworkers who had been through the mill enough to be scarred. Such experiences leave a certain feeling behind, one this poem gets at very well.

All in all, a worthy issue, one that chews over the difference between those sheltered by money, and those fighting not to be at its mercy. I’m glad this viewpoint is still out there.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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Had some big changes in my life recently, so I haven’t blogged in a while, but here we go now.

In the Fall 2015 Blue Collar Review, I was much struck by Carole Mertz’ pantoum, “Hard Times.” She uses the form to powerful effect. “He likes to hold his temper in the face of adversity / even though his hours are reduced.” The repetition of lines reminds us of the grinding nature of work, and of bosses who make things harder: “Even though his hours are reduced / the manager hovers over him.” Well done.

“Mine,” by Ed Werstein, reminds me a bit of George Harrison’s “Taxman,” with its grim humor: “Mine is mine, / and those things you thought were yours? / They’re mine.” But this is Blue Collar Review, so the poem will ultimately have to do with work. “The mines are mine. / All the mines that miners mined…”Great, ironic word play, and a strong ending.

I very much enjoyed William Joliff’s explanatory poem, “Briarhopper Ted-Talk: What To Do With Spam.” “The trick is getting it thin enough…Done right, fried Spam won’t be soft / in the middle. There is no middle.” The earnest tone adds to the fun. “I smashed a lot of Spam to learn it.” And a perfectly Blue Collar ending to top it off.

The poet roibeard gives us an engaging poem. I like the fun of “Mission Creep 3.” “Thursdays, / the fear of failing myself / must play pattycake with someone else.” There are a lot of slick little turns of phrase: “barleycorn buffoonery is at my beck & call.” (Yes, this line scans, which adds something delicate to its lilt). And, “There’s also the matter of my cradle-Catholic wife…our lady of the chickens.” The poem is an enjoyable read.

Finally, I’ll mention “On HGTV,” by Joan Colby. It starts, “They are obsessed with stainless steel and granite.” Surely we can all identify with the narrator, watching the unreal people on TV. “Which makes me determined…to abjure the island around which / Everyone congregates.” I like that word, abjure. There is a fine sensibility for language here. “I want to smite that arrogance / of want.” A line worth going back to and contemplating. All in all, a very worthy poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, is a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage. It’s available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ as well as other fine e-retailers.

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