I'm a product of the American Rust Belt. Having grown up in the 1980s, I watched family members lose their jobs and friends leave the little northwestern Pennsylvania town where I lived. As teenagers, we dreamed of leaving and never coming back. And some did leave. And some of us stayed.
I was one who stayed. Well, I kinda stayed. I left to go to school (there were no local colleges in the area) and returned and then took a job just across the state border. (To be honest, my 20s was a series of small moves around three counties -- too long of a story to retell here.) I now live 45 minutes from my hometown.
In The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt by David Giffels, the author explores the history of his own hometown, Akron, Ohio through both memoir and observation, making personal commentaries about those who decide to stay in their struggling towns and cities. His essays are both humorous and insightful, and as a reader I found myself nodding "yes" on numerous occasions in response to his insights about the landscape and people of the Rust Belt.
The main focus of Giffels' collection is, of course, Akron, Ohio, and this can be seen as he explores the specific history of his hometown, notably discussing what happens to a city when its main industries leave, often leaving a city without an identity. In the case of Akron, these industries were Goodrich and Firestone, thus making Akron's nickname, "The Rubber City" a bit problematic. He further explores his hometown's identity by focusing on famous people including Lebron James, the music group Devo, and Chrissie Hynde.
Still, Giffels' collection doesn't just focus on other people; many of his stories are his own, cataloging his own stories and experiences. One piece titled "Popular Stories for Boys" chronicles his love of reading and his relationship with a book store owner. Another piece, "Lake Effect" describes the crazy (and sometimes harsh) weather conditions of northern Ohio.
My favorite essay, however, is titled "Do Not Cry For Me, Arizona" where he discusses the perception that some believe the term "Rust Belt" is overused, dated, and even a bit tired. To this, Giffels responds, "We need to be the Rust Belt. We've paid so dearly for that designation that we deserve to have it as our own and to allow it to represent the fullness of its story. It's our blues."
I loved The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt, namely because I am from the Rust Belt (although, a much more rural part), and as a reader I could see the stubborn pride that shined through Giffels' stories and recollections.
It's 1961, and after a family tragedy rocks her life, Brigid Howley, along with her mother, father, and little brother find themselves living with her strong-willed grandmother and sick grandfather. What follows this move, in Natalie S. Harnett's debut novel, The Hollow Ground, is a coming-of-age story set in the Anthracite region of Pennsylvania. Through a grisly discovery, young Brigid must not only come to terms with her fragile homelife, but her family's past as well.
What first attracted me to Harnett's novel was the setting. Set against the backdrop of the underground coal mines in eastern Pennsylvania, the very idea that the world could give out underneath the characters' feet at any moment (and does, in some scenes) adds to the tension in the story. Furthermore, the coal mining history is imperative to both the plot and the character development. Coal seems to seep through the very pores of the characters' skin and certainly, there are places in the book, where I know that the characters actually have coal veins in their bodies.
Still, as I read Harnett's book, I became so enveloped in the characters' lives, that I almost (I say almost because it is impossible to totally disregard the sense of place in this book) forgot the setting and instead focused on the characters' struggles, hopes and dreams. The main character, Brigid, is appealing -- sharp and brazen, she is determined to find her way through her sullen surroundings. In general, all the characters, both Brigid's family members and her friends, are flawed and not always likeable, but that makes them even more realistic in this gritty world.
Harnett's book is inspired by the underground mine fires of Centralia and Carbondale. I say inspired because the book starts in 1961, one year before the start and/or discovery of the Centralia fire. Thus, a reader who knows the history of this particular incident should not enter the novel thinking that the author is retelling the story of this specific coal fire. Instead, she is incorporating the symbolism of what an underground mine fire does -- devours silently, only flaring at times when the conditions are right.
A great first book by Natalie S. Harnett -- I am eager to see her follow up works. For more information on The Hollow Ground, see Harnett's website, which features samples and background information.
6/13/2014 0 Comments
Anyone who regularly keeps up with my writing (including my book reviews and blog) knows that I love my Pennsylvania working-class landscape. It's been said that Pennsylvania retains its natives more than any other state in the union and I can understand why -- there's something in the coal patches and rust belt remnants that works its way into our skin and never lets go. And it's this "something" that made me pick up Here and There: Reading Pennsylvania's Working Landscape by Bill Conlogue.
Conlogue's book is a series of essays (written as chapters) that explore the history and the land of Anthracite Pennsylvania. In his introduction, he explains that the book is written as "narrative scholarship," a type of writing that is often found troublesome in the academic world for various reasons. Although I was not familiar with this particular term, as I read through the book, I couldn't help but think that Conlogue is writing in a type of creative (or literary) nonfiction, as he blends personal narratives with historical and literary resources. For instance, he often recounts his own personal memories of growing up in dairy farm in eastern Pennsylvania or attending a college in coal-mining country and then blends these memories with current issues regarding the environment.
Conlogue's main goal is to explore a specific place (in this case, eastern Pennsylvania) and in essence, celebrate that place whether it's through personal stories, historical documents, poetry, and recent environmental studies. He explains, "To assume that every place can be any place is to endanger all places." Indeed, every chapter takes on a specific part of eastern Pennsylvania. For instance, in one chapter titled "Merwin and Mining" Conlogue investigates the trauma of coal mining -- both on humans and on the land -- using the poetry of W.S. Merwin and Jay Parini as lenses for looking at history and landscape. In another chapter, he discusses the landscape scars of the past including leftover mine debris in culm banks and acid mine drainage. (He also cites many poems by Sherry Fairchok, who wrote the book, Palace of Ashes, is one of my all time favorite contemporary poetry books).
It seems that when studying the landscape of eastern Pennsylvania, that the state's coal mining history often takes center stage. Conlogue, however, spends considerable time examining the dairy/farming industry -- a part of Pennsylvania's working-class world that is often overlooked. Because he grew up on a dairy farm, he is able to offer personal stories and insights into the world of the Pennsylvania farm. He also places his family's farm in the context of history, researching and explaining the slowly disappearing family farm, often through the building and demolishing of the barn. (When I was growing up, the barn that shouted the slogan, Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco was a common sign; now, I have to note that both the slogans and the barns themselves are slowly disappearing).
For my readers who love the Pennsylvanian world as much as I do, this is a book that belongs on your bookshelf! For those of you who do not necessarily have an interest in Pennsylvanian land and history, that is okay, because Conlogue's book is a must read for anyone who believes that there is a link between a land and its people.
For more information about this book, see The Pennsylvania State University Press's website, which also features other review of Conlogue's work.
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.
At the start of Trespasses, author Lacy M. Johnson explains her writing process of compiling her memoir by saying that she spent over sixty hours interviewing family members about their life stories. Then, according to Johnson, "At a certain point the facts got in the way of the truth." The line between what is truth and what is fact is always a fuzzy boundary, of course, and it's this fuzzy boundary that Johnson uses as a tool to explore her family's life in rural Missouri.
Johnson's story is not a chronological one. Instead, she chooses to trace the past through episodic scenes; many of them could be described as spots of time or specific transcriptions of memories. Through these snippets we see her parents' and grandparents' stories, stories that often brim with a rugged love of both family and land.
We also see Johnson's own stories . Not only does she record her own memories of growing up, we read quiet contemplations woven in between tales. Identity is the main focus of these contemplations, and indeed, class, race, and gender issues surface through many places in this book. For example, in one section, Johnson considers the meaning of white trash while recording her struggles at a major university. In another section, she discusses her frustration when someone tells her that the rural Midwest doesn't have "culture."
Like Johnson, I know what it is like to struggle with identity. I grew up in rural northern Pennsylvania, a place that cannot be defined by being part of the East Coast (our way of living is nothing like those who live in New York City or Philadelphia), yet we are not really part of the Midwest. Technically speaking, we are part of Northern Appalachia, which yes, is very different than Southern Appalachia -- so as you can see, I find identity a hard subject to examine, and Johnson's episodic exploration of the past is a stark look at the way we navigate our own personal histories.
For more information about Trespasses, and other work by Lacy M. Johnson, visit her website.
At heart, Nicole Walker is a poet. I knew this as soon as I read five pages of her memoir, Quench Your Thirst With Salt. I knew this way before I read her bio note and discovered that yes, Walker, had many poetry publications. I knew this as soon as this first paragraph popped out at me: "The fish jumped a ladder built of electricity and concrete. Swimming up the Columbia teaches her a lesson about progress. Even before the dam, the waterfalls would have battered her forefathers. The rocks would have walloped a punch, broken the skin, bruised the flesh."
And so starts Walker's Quench Your Thirst With Salt, a memoir. More specifically, however, this book is a collection of lyrical essays that explore her life growing up in the state of Utah. Every chapter can be read (and perhaps, should be read) as an individual essay. For instance, one chapter titled "Filtered Water" focuses on the life of the water we use while juxtaposing this life with the author's own life, describing what she knows and doesn't know about her own family history. In another chapter, she introduces the reader to her father's alcoholism through discussions of the term "superfluidity" and in another chapter she describes her relationship with her own body when she has to have surgery at a young age. While most of the book focuses on her life in Utah, other chapters venture outside of the state including Nevada, Oregon and Minnesota, all the while aspects of the natural world with her own life.
Readers will find that Walker's book is more of an episodic exploration of her life rather than a straight linear narrative. We don't necessarily find clear beginnings or clear endings; instead, we read thoughtful insights about family relationships and their correlations to the world around us. And, of course, it's easy to get lost (blissfully, so) in the poetic language of Walker's landscapes, whether they are manmade or natural.
You can read more about Quench Your Thirst With Salt on Nicole Walker's homepage or the website of Zone Three Press.
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
Prairie Silence by Melanie Hoffert is part coming-of-age story and part coming-out story. The book chronicles Hoffert's journey back home to North Dakota, where she explores both the past and the present in order to reconcile sexuality, religion, love, and family.
The book intertwines Hoffert's current life with her memories of the past growing up on a North Dakota farm. She gives a name to this confrontation of the past, Prairie Silence, which she describes: "Prairie Silence is -- I have come to believe -- the way that people of the prairie mirror the land with their sturdy, hardworking, fruitful and quiet dispositions. They are committed to each other like the soil is committed to the crop. They are uncomplaining in the way the land dutifully recovers after tornadoes, droughts, and floods destroy a season's harvest. They are humble and quiet, like white prairie grass in the wind. They swallow their problems, their fears, their shames, and their secrets -- figuring that nature will take care of everything, somehow or other. That is, after all, how it works with the crops. And once a silence has taken hold, whatever it is, it is hard to uproot." It's this confrontation that is the very conflict in the book. How does one confront a place that doesn't wish to speak out loud?
Hoffert doesn't really find any answers, but she seems to find peace. And part of this peace is found in the landscape that she describes so beautifully, a world that can deliver stunning sunsets that defy literary clichés or winter storms that seemingly blur the world in wind and white. Having never been to the Dakotas, Hoffert's book didn't really deliver me to the physical place, but to other books that also celebrate the Dakota landscape, including Dakota by Kathleen Norris and The Horizontal World by Debra Marquart. It's a beautiful book about reconciliations with memory and place and home.
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.