We need more poetry about the world of waitressing. I'm saying this as a former waitress (I was a lousy waitress, by the way) and as a lover of Jan Beatty's waitress poems, a favorite being "A Waitresses' Instructions on Tipping or Get the Cash Up and Don't Waste My Time." This is why I was happy to find Waiting at the Dead End Diner by Rebecca Schumejda.
In this book, the poet enters the Dead End Diner as a waitress. While I am always hesitant to say that the "I" in any poem is the poet, in this case it's probably true, since the book synopsis says that while Schumejda was working on this book, "she put her apron back on and waited tables, discovering that her respect for the industry is unwavering." Throughout this collection, the reader meets the waitresses, the cooks, the regulars, and even the boss of the Dead End Diner, all the while exploring both the workplace and the personal trials and tribulations of her characters.
Certainly, some readers would say that the focus of this collection is on the work of the restaurant industry, and in some ways, this is true. Many poems display the day-to-day work of waitresses balancing trays and busboys cleaning off tables. Others tell more specific stories. In one poem, "The Leaf Pepper Special" we learn that the waitresses encourage customers to order the cook's special "a butternut squash soup/a hamburger with American cheese/and red velvet cake with chocolate icing" because Rick has promised a twelve-pack "for the waitress who sells the most." In other poems, we learn the distasteful task of dealing with rude customers (a normal part of a waitress's job, I am afraid). One image that has stuck with me is found in "Tip" where the narrator lists some of the strangest tips she has ever received including "scratch-off lottery tickets, two shiny/pennies left heads up, a handful of/condoms, a golden hundred dollar Monopoly bill" but then ends her list describing a truck driver who talked to her about missing his kids, and then leaves her "a twenty for listening and a/tiny tooth nested on a coffee spoon."
Still, it's the people who take center stage of this collection. We meet Carlos, who busses tables in order to get his wife and children to the United States. We meet Rick, the cook, a brash man who shouts racist comments but also has a secret life as a cross dresser. We meet Kitty, a regular who "always wears shirts adorned with cats/and white laceless tennis shoes with/handmade Puff Paint kitchens on the front." We meet Maggie who has been a waitress for so long that she considers herself "tough as razors." We meet the owner's wife, whose presence disrupts the kitchen so that "either scatter to the darkest corners/ like roaches or buzz around like bees." Indeed, this collection could easily be read as a novel in verse, with the main character navigating a single story line throughout the book while exploring both the outer conflicts of the setting and the inner conflicts of the characters themselves.
Schumejda's poetic language is blunt and sometimes, harsh. At first glance it may seem that Waiting at the Dead End Diner lacks the lyrical line found in much of the music of today's poem. But then, the reader will realize that there is music here: it's the hard edge of working-class life that sings with a stubborn but hopeful melody all of its own.
Anthony Frame's first full-length book of poems, A Generation of Insomniacs, is a coming-of-age collection full of elegies -- elegies mourning place, elegies mourning people, elegies mourning specific time periods. Physically set in the 1990's when Kurt Cobain was King of the pop culture world, Frame's collection tackles the big themes of loss and hope all the while navigating the stark Ohio Rust Belt landscape.
One of the first poems in the collection, "How to Write a Poem in Toledo, Ohio" serves as a perfect prelude to the collection. In this poem, Frame writes, "Start with the churches, those brilliant buildings/standing at the center of every neighborhood." From these first two lines, he moves forward, giving precise directions for writing about a place including citing specific actions: "Learn how/to hop fences as a child. As an adult//learn how to hop curbs in your 4x4." He ends with this piece of advice: "If you manage//to leave, don't forget your blue collar genes." After all, he explains, "Here, we fray. Here, we rust. Remember that."
Certainly, the pictures of a frayed and rusted narrator follows the reader throughout the collection, as many of the poems focus on the stark images of a time period filled with tension and loss. The collection weaves in and out of personal history that often reflects both local place and the world at large. Some poems focus on memory such as "Hate" which depicts a scuffle between two boys that ends with physical pain and injury and a narrator who says, "This city has more hate than broken windows." In another poem, "Why I Hate the Sunrise," the narrator thinks back to his perception of war as a memory of a teacher who wheels a television to her classroom to show "A green sun exploding over the darkened sky/ of Baghdad, surrounded by cascading comets."
Still, most of the poems take on a more lyrical, instead of narrative voice, often mourning different losses. The time period of this collection focuses on the early 1990's and the poem, "Are You Ready" finds a group of friends toasting the new millennial with the narrator cataloging their futures -- futures he cannot yet know: "Greg will get kicked out of Iraq for loving/a man. He'll move to Maine/hiding himself/among snow and foster children./Eric will find salvation in a church run//by a schizophrenic Christ, the rapture always/ almost here. Jason will lose himself somewhere/on the fringes of Route 66. The Pacific Ocean/forever a fantasy, he'll come back to Ohio//and die slowly, woken at night by cancer scars/and seizures." Indeed, several works in this collection are dedicated to Jason including the poem, "Heart-Shaped State" that explains, "Jason's cancer grew from/his skin towards his lymph nodes. We should have seen/the danger of sun and bare skin, but we knew//albinos die first in nature."
As with many collections that focus on elegies, A Generation of Insomniacs also finds the narrator of these poems fighting losses about himself. In "Evolution," he depicts his own grief about the departure of a friend: "As you cry, I stand and search this secret crowd/for a space to remain a man." In another poem titled "Last Night of Childhood, Nearly Thirteen," the narrator laments the loss of youth when he returns "to the boy in the green bedroom/his name scribbled on the door above a series/of inches and dates." Yet, Frame's work is not without hope. Several poems celebrate hope in the face of loss including the concluding poem, "Flannel Love Poem With a Touch of Sky" where the narrator addresses his love: "I pull into our driveway, the sun/soon to rise. In front of me, the living room lamp/you left on all night to guide me home./Above me, the stars and the spring breeze/dancing with the bedroom window. And you, love--/wearing my old Nirvana shirt as a nightgown."
For more information, see Frame's website or visiting Main Street Rag, the publisher of A Generation of Insomniacs.
An American Rust Belt City would hardly seem to be the location where a tale of magical realism would take place, but Rochelle Hurt, in her first collection of poetry, The Rusted City, navigates a broken and battered world through elements of fantasy and characters who seemed to have stepped out of a blue-collar fairy tale.
In The Rusted City we are introduced to a family of four whose names are never given and are only described as the smallest sister, the oldest sister, the quiet mother, and the favorite father. Most of this novel-in-verse collection is told from the perspective of the smallest sister who views the world around her in wonderment, although most of what she sees is coated in rust. For instance, in the opening poem, "The Old Mill" she explains that she knows birds are living in an abandoned mill: "The birds are there, eating the rust from the wings." Certainly, it seems as if these birds are acting as phoenix symbols -- rising from rust as if they are rising from the destruction of fire and ashes.
Although we don't always necessarily see the characters rising from their rusty world, we do see them as hopeful survivors that seem to make the best of their situations. In "The Smallest Sister Decides to Make Herself Red" we see a child who wants to make herself attractive by stringing "corroded washes into a necklace" and coloring her lips with "sanguine river water." In another poem, "The Oldest Sister Smashes Cans" this same sister learns the art of destruction from her sibling: "Each can lets out a wheeze as it folds into itself, a burst of breath/ that whooshes the rust-laced pollen on the ground." While many of the poems do feature the smallest sister and her relationship with other characters and the world around her, some let other people speak including poems where the quiet wife takes center stage. For instance, in "Wife Song," the speaker likens her love to "impatient decay" while in the two sentence poem "The Quiet Mother Moves," that acts almost like an interlude to the collection, we understand this figure that walks "like breath, and an out of the house. Like a lung, the house empties and fills."
Yes, we get a strong sense of how the characters are navigating this world of debris, but perhaps the most interesting section of this collection is where the older sister relays the history of their hometown. In the poem, "In the Century of Lunch Pails" she explains that the world was once filled with "the grown and whistle of liquid/aluminum, churning the river to a radium loam" and "coins/inside all the hollowed-out fathers as they walked." This world of busy factory activity ends, however, and is followed by the sullen stillness of unemployment described in "In the Century of Silence" when "the plants closed, no/exclamations were heard,/but the city opened with the pink/of a thousand gapemouths, all/of its citizens miming themselves."
Navigating the American Rust Belt through poetry is tricky -- it's easy to fall into clichés and nostalgia. But Hurt avoids all the rusty overwrought drama and creates a new world from the old by using rust as more than corrosion and damage. In her lyrical poems, she transforms a world that is familiar debris to a place that is beautiful and hopeful.
For more information about The Rusted City, visit Rochelle Hurt's website. The Rusted City is part of White Pine Press's Marie Alexander Poetry Series which highlights prose poetry. More can be found about this series here.
In Scrap Iron, the debut poetry collection by Mark Jay Brewin Jr., he struggles to answer the question, "Can one really go home again?" The answer is not clear, but his exploration is worth reading. From the flooded farmlands of Southern New Jersey to the island countries of Ireland and New Zealand, we watch as a narrator struggles to negotiate the relationship of personal identity with home and family.
Scrap Iron is divided into three sections. The first section is dedicated to memories of the poet's youth in New Jersey. The narratives detail a hardscrabble life of rust and water and work. The opening poem, which is untitled, acts as a prelude to the collection where the poet describes the landscape around him: "Water was always the problem surrounding/our rancher anchored to the low end of the acreage--/rain lurched in, ankle-deep pools filled every dip/in the road..." The narrator goes on to explain that his father "donned his fisherman's rain suit/shoveled sand along the edge to keep street gutters/from overflowing and making our house an island/in a slump of the farmed plain." The family, meanwhile, hunkers down at home, with a mother taking care of three children and waiting for a husband who, seemingly disappears in the drowned land around them.
What follows this poem is a collection that explores the family's everyday life. My favorite poem is "Scrap Iron" where the narrator tells about finding and collecting scrap metal for extra money. Detailing the landscape, it's easy to see that Brewin knows this world well: "We hunted for steel along flat-bottom train rails -- glass/blanketing the gravel track bed like chicken feed/jimson weed between creosote-steeped timbers/picked over buckled trailers and garbage stacks:/crack pump heads, mower blades, band saws rusted mid-cut."
Many of the poems detail physical labor and focus on the effects this work has on the body. In one poem, "So Intricate, So Inconceivably Complex" the narrator explains that his father lost fingers "when he/wedged the index and middle fingers of his left hand in the cogs and gears." Following the theme of survival which pervades many of the poems in this collection, the reader later learns that he had "to relearn how to grip objects with his left hand, the nerves/too sensitive to touch anything." In another poem, "Peeling Skin" the narrator tells how he and his sisters used to peel away "flakes of sunburned skin" from their father's shoulders. Making a game of the ritual, the siblings "had little contests/to see who could pull/the largest piece, the best shape." Even more than a game, the narrator seems to realize they had a more noble cause: "We tended/him as if we could peel/the mark of hard work from his body."
Other sections of this collection find the narrator traveling away from New Jersey, both physically and mentally. In "Working First Shift at the Progresso Soups Factory" the narrator takes a summer job, knowing that after a few months he would walk away from "this calloused glance at another life" to attend college. In other poems, he travels further away. In "The Island Meditations" the narrator explores the land and culture of New Zealand, and tells his sister over the phone, "I can't tell you/how nice it is to be some place so very different from home." Ironically, throughout most of this particular poem, which actually is composed of a sequence of events and recollections, we find the narrator thinking of home more often than recording the world around him.
Brewin is a master of a narrative poem. Working with the unreliability of human memory, he weaves stories from both history and the rough landscape he knows well. Readers will be drawn into his stories without ever getting lost in his images of landscapes and people. Indeed, walking away from this collection, you may find yourself wringing rain water from your clothes and looking for rust on your hands and metal splinters in your skin.
Brewin's collection won the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in poetry, and this book definitely deserves the honor. It's also a collection that leaves me wanting more of Brewin's work and looking forward to his future books. For more information on Scrap Iron and Mark Jay Brewin, Jr. visit the poet's website
In many ways, I am more of a reader than a writer. This page will serve as a home for my informal reviews of what I've been reading.