I am delighted to bring to you below a perceptive and eloquent review by poet, publisher, scholar, Jeanetta Calhoun Mish.
Two New Working-class Poetry Collections: A Review by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
Bryner,Jeanne. Smoke. Bottom Dog Press, 2012. 92 pages. $16.00. ISBN 978-1-933964-59-1
Umbach, Sandee Gertz. The Pattern Maker’sDaughter. Bottom Dog Press, 2012. 83 pages. $16.00. ISBN 978-1-933964-52-2
Note: Versions of this review were published in the Working-Class Studies Newsletter; the previously published reviews were separated by author and shortened. This version has never been previously published.
The year 2012 was a moment when working class voices were once again heard—and sometimes heeded—around the world. And, if these two collections of poetry, Smoke by Jeanne Bryner and The Pattern Maker's Daughter by Sandee Gertz Umbach, are any indication, 2012 was also an exceptionally good year for working-class literature. Bryner and Gertz offer readers poetry which present working-class lives and peoples in richly-imagined details, evocative metaphor, and mastery of craft.
Smoke is Bryner's fifth book of poetry, and those who have followed her writing career will not be disappointed with this collection, but instead, along with those new to her work, they will find within it phrases, lines, entire poems that will linger in the heart and mind long after the book has been closed. Like Bryner's previous collections, Smoke centers on Bryner's vocation as a registered nurse, but it seems to me that in this collection there are more poems than in earlier collections on Bryner's childhood and her life outside the hospital. No matter the topic, though, the poems in this collection are crafted of finely woven, powerful metaphors that give me the shivers, among them recurring metaphors of the cleansing, healing power of water, of flowers which signal a radically empathetic perspective on beauty, and of birds, alternately figured as signs of emotional freedom or fragility.
The first poem of the collection, "Bed Bath," sets up a collection-wide trope of the sacred within the human realm, proclaiming ". . . it is one of the holiest acts" to give a patient a bath in "the morning's sacred space." Another ritualized bathing takes place in "Violets," written in the voice of a nurse attending to a ". . . girl with enormous / eyes and shoestring hair / who puts razor blades on her tongue, / . . . month after month." The girl's life is "battered as a sparrow," yet, when the nurses wash her bloody body "the way you'd wash a mauled terrier," their ministrations initiate a turn toward redemption, a redemption brought about through a startling evocation of the beauty of flowers:
And when we close her skin
with suture, scars blossom pink scrolls
—rows of azaleas--like nothing
you can smell or taste, like little girls
in their eyelet sundresses
running toward you
their fists full of violets
crying, Here, here, love me.
Here, the poet references flowers twice, underscoring the empathetic shift of perspective required to re-value this hurting, battered child. Love is required to give to this girl a sense of her own beauty and worth, and, it seems, the ER nurses are the only font of love—a font of baptismal redemption created by the hands of human workers—in this girl's life.
The idea that redemption and healing are human practices as much as they are God's indulgences is revisited later in the collection, in "Where God Lives," one of the poems arising from Bryner's childhood. The first two lines of the poem read "It is hard to believe in God, even now, / He was always somewhere else. Maybe fishing." God was somewhere else when the speaker and her sister, ages six and eight, were left "alone with my baby brothers" while their father was out drinking. The speaker, the younger sister, went to take her brother off the potty seat and while doing so, "his weenie got caught in a crack / of blue plastic. Blood spurted as if I'd chopped / a hen's neck." Needless to say, the sisters were terrified and, without adult supervision, unsure of what to do. The elder sister "ran," while the younger wrapped her brother's wounded appendage in a wash cloth and prayed. From the speaker's perspective, her prayer was not answered by God, but by two neighbor women her sister had alerted, women who took care of the injured boy, gave the sisters "orange popsicles," and threw the obviously dangerous potty seat in the trash. On that day, the speaker asserts, "God "lived on our street" —a pragmatic, hands-on god, much like the nurses and doctors and caregiving family members in Bryner's work.
Throughout the collection, it seems clear that one constructive response to trauma and tragedy is to contribute to others’ spiritual and physical healing. Bryner's childhood of neglect and abuse and her efforts and wishes to help her siblings survive and overcome that abuse served to prepare her for nursing. In fact, it appears, as Janet Zandy has pointed out about laborers in general, that trauma and illness are prevalent among Bryner's hospital coworkers, and that each person's injuries and fears are both reawakened and partially exorcised in the practice of caregiving. In the poem "Kindness," nurses trade out emotionally-difficult duties with each other: they make plans to cover for one of their coworkers who could not suction tracheotomies without vomiting and for another who whispers "If there's a rape tonight, I don't think I can do it."
The final poem of the collection, "Retired Nurse: Poetry Reading with My Patients," reveals that practicing hard-won, creative responses to the ugliness of the world is a cyclical gift first given to the speaker from a woman who survived a concentration camp, a woman whose "violet eyes" are "a meadow of forgiveness." The gift is a survivor's imperative: "Do something special with your life." Smoke, as befits a working-class poet, is firmly on the side of a theology of acts: we are saved by the acts of others, therefore we should ourselves work toward forgiveness by engaging in redemptive acts on behalf of others.
In Smoke, God is a working-class neighbor, a nurse, a wife whose husband is dying of cancer, a doctor who saves a young, unmarried woman's life by telling her that her unborn child is not a sin. These angels of mercy are born from tragedy. And, in Jeanne Bryner's case, a poet was also born, a poet whose writing has matured into this collection, a masterwork of craft and emotional integrity.
Where Jeanne Bryner's Smoke is her fifth collection, The Pattern-Maker's Daughter is Sandee Gertz Umbach's first, yet it already shows signs of facility with metaphor—extended metaphor, in particular—, a good sense of line breaks, and a sensibility capable of working within received forms while making the form serve the content.
Similarly to Bryner’s collection, Umbach’s opens with a poem, “The Pattern Makers,” that previews most of the major themes in the collection while at the same time serving as an ars poetica. As the poet’s father and the rest of Johnstown pattern makers knew,
Not everyone can be a pattern maker
old men on porches tell me.
You have to see things no one else sees.
In some ways, then, the poet is following in her father’s footsteps, seeing things in the world others do not see and and making (poeisis) of them the patterned language of poetry. The patterns in The Pattern Maker’s Daughter, some of which are similar to those in Smoke, revolve around a set of themes and metaphors: an obsession with water— in Umbach’s writing, water is not benign—, illness, especially the poet’s childhood seizure disorder, and the everyday rhythms and injuries of working-class life.
Anyone familiar with the history of Johnstown, PA will understand immediately why water would not be a benign presence in Umbach’s collection, and for those who don’t, Umbach supplies notes to the first two poems in the section that treats the 1977 Johnstown Flood. The Flood poems are of two types, one narrative and the other narrative-lyric hybrids that sometimes linger in the surreal, a combination that is very popular in today’s poetics, but is not always as well executed as it is in The Pattern Maker’s Daughter. As an example of the narrative-lyric poem in the collection, here is a selection from “Stationary Front”:
the storm unable to escape the pull of valley air—
like all of us unable to lift up and fly over those ridges—
though thousands of us drove our Chevy’s down Rt. 56
to D.C., Maryland, Virginia Beach;, thinking we’d lift it behind,
the shelter of green hills, the stories of our fathers’ lucky strikes. The voices
of those who stayed and those who came back, uncertain as the lilting
speech at the end of statements that sound more like questions we could never
quite answer—in silence when friends returned to the diner.
The first line of the first stanza reproduced here is the last line of a mostly narrative account of how the Flood began; at this line, and for the next several stanzas, the poem turns to a meditative consideration of the people of Johnstown and how the topography of the area has affected its human inhabitants and the town’s propensity for inundation, both of the emotional and meteorological kind. Moreover, the next stanza’s opening lines reveal one of this collections’ most significant themes, and they also reference Umbach’s most remarkable recurring metaphor:
Folded into the crevice of those mountains, we are remote and hidden,
yet the storms keep finding us, our city’s history a collective memory,
Our city’s history a collective memory. More than anything else, The Pattern Maker’s Daughter an unveiling of the patterns of collective memory, of History and of history, personal, family, community. To figure collective memory, History, and history, Umbach taps a formidable metaphor not utilized for this purpose, so far as I know, since Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead: she uses geological terms and concepts as recurrent, extended metaphors for the working-class culture and history and poet-speaker’s place within them.What might be surprising from an early-career poet is that Umbach wields her geological metaphors and references with great skill, in large part because she is obviously knowledgable (enough) about the geological structures and materials of Western Pennsylvania to use them.
Not only does Umbach put the geological metaphors to work, she is capable of creating the prophetic tone found in Rukeyser’s book and the great, communal “I am” of Whitman’s work—both of which depend on concrete imagery as a launching point, and both of which are difficult to do without sounding ridiculous.
Witness this section from “Part of this Earth”:
I am shale, common and conglomerate,
(the dirty inside of a purse, caked over lipstick
torn receipts and dried gum) skeletons
of organisms drifting. I am rapidly moving streams.
Carbon rich, organic, coal, compressed.
In addition to their use in the more philosophical poems in the collection, I found it delightful that Umbach’s geological metaphors and language appear in unexpected places, and in doing so, solidify the metaphorical relationship between the working-class people of Johnstown and the geology around and beneath them—the analogy runs all the way through, like a vein of ore. It appears in “Milltown Girls in Flight,” a poem recalling how the girl-children of Johnstown would hold their Barbies up in the air to make it appear they were walking “atop the crevice of Allegheny mountain gap”; it sings in the colloquial in a poem title, “Schist N’At.” The geological ghost rises in two poems about the speaker’s seizure disorder, one entitled “Headward Erosion” and the other “Fissile Flickerings”—the title geological terms are metaphors active through the entirety of both poems.
There are many more delights to be found in The Pattern Maker’s Daughter, among them a series of work poems (using Jim Daniel’s categories of “work” poems and “working-class” poems), several coming-of-age poems, and a scattering of poems in form: a sonnet, rhyming stanzas in iambic pentameter. The collection ends with the title poem which makes explicit the implicit connections between the father’s and the daughter’s “makings,” bringing it full circle from “The Pattern Makers” at the beginning of the book. The poet makes her patterns by gathering “the random points I connect in poems that tie me to this earth.” Sandee Gertz Umbach has created an extraordinary set of patterns in this collection, and we are fortunate that she has shared them, so we, too, can be tied to this earth and its people.
Jeanetta Calhoun Mish is a poet and prose writer. Her 2009 poetry collection, Work Is Love Made Visible won the Western Heritage Award, the WILLA Award from Women Writing the West, and the Oklahoma Book Award. Mish’s chapbook, Tongue Tied Woman, won the national Edda Poetry Chapbook for Women contest sponsored by Soulspeak Press. Her writings have been recently published or are upcoming in Fiddleback, Cybersoleil, Naugatuck Review, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Concho River Review and Blast Furnace. Jeanetta is Editor of award-winning Mongrel Empire Press, and contributing editor to the literary journal Sugar Mule and to Oklahoma Today. She is Director of and a faculty mentor for the Red Earth Creative Writing MFA Program at Oklahoma City University.