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Posts Tagged ‘Neal Wilgus’


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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