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.
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.
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.
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 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.