By Jim Daniels
The University of Wisconsin Press
Reviewed by Stephen Page
Reading Places/Everyone will take you back home. You will drive through your old neighborhood where you grew up, shop at K-Mart, visit a pallet factory where you once worked, eat lunch in the break room, take a drive around the shop on a Hi-Lo, guzzle a six-pack with your friends out back in a vacant lot. O.K. Not everyone was born in Detroit, but most people have held at least one blue-collar job in their life. The poems in this collection set in the 1970’s and 80’s—and for that reason they are dated, but they read as though they have become timeless. The characters are menial laborers, factory workers, union-job holders, burger flippers. Daniels captures the entrapment felt by the middle class dupe, the working-class hero, the minimum wage worker, the assembly line jockey—almost anyone who has worked for a weekly paycheck.
“My Father Worked Late” depicts a Detroit working person’s dilemma, that is, each day could bring feast or famine, overtime or lay-off. A household earner usually had to work two jobs or overtime to pay the bills. It is stressful and tiring:
Some nights when he wasn’t too tired
he took off his shirt
and sat in the middle of the floor.
We wrestled, trying to pin
back his arms, sitting on his chest
digging our heads into the yellow stains
under the arms of his t-shirt…………..
he sat up, cradling us both in headlocks
in the closest thing to an embrace
that I remember……..
Other nights he looked right through us
mechanically eating his late dinner
yelling at anything that moved.
Some mornings we woke to find him
asleep on the couch, his foreman’s tie twisted
into words we couldn’t spell.
We ate our cereal as carefully as communion
Until our mother shook him ready for another day.
This poem shows the acceptable behavior of that time between a father and the rest of the family. The man was usually, but not always, the sole breadwinner of the family. His role was to make money, not provide love. There was not much demonstration of affection between a father and his children. The father in this poem is probably no longer intimate with his wife either, for he sleeps “sometimes” on the couch. This detached behavior is too much to handle for this father, and his days often end in depressive stupors and irate snapping at his family.
A number of the working men’s wives work, but only at minimum wage jobs:
Some of the wives work now
behind counters at McDonald’s
marking clothes at K-Mart
pulling in minimum wage
grocery money for another week.
And most of them do it only after the husbands have been laid off:
Up and down the streets
men mow their lawns
do yard work
many try to grow vegetables.
From the title of the poem, “Hard Times in the Motor City,” it is obvious that this is not just Saturday lawn work, nor a reflection of nurturing natures. It is men without jobs. They keep busy by working in their yards. Many men turn to drink as an outlet:
In the bar
Steve talks about
The afternoon movie….
He says he’ll dig ditches
or clean shitholes
all he wants is a job.
He’s got a wife, two kids,
He looks me hard in the eye:
“a man can always afford a drink.”
Of course, the irony being that turning to alcohol can result in procrastination and justification of spending money needed to pay for family food. It’s a downward spiral. Work less, drink more, squander money. Drink more, squander money, work less.
How does having no job affect behavior ? In “No Job”:
He pulls out
all the bushes in his yard
swinging a shovel at the roots.
He chases away the paperboy.
Television smashed in the driveway.
His wife hides from the neighbors.
No, no, no jobs:
He throws his knife in the air.
Frustration, frustration, frustration. Of course it does not help that most workers are not college educated, and cannot move out of their world. Most had only three choices when they finished high school, go to work for one of the Big Three:
High school, toking behind auto shop
parking lot sticky in the heat.
Ford, Chevy (GM), Chrysler—
where you gonna work?
The second section of the book is attention-grabbing because Daniels turns to second-person point-of-view, a technique not always easy to pull off. Daniels does it well, and brings the reader into the world of the working-class stiff. Digger, the main character of the section, becomes the man we all love to hate. He is obnoxious, crude, rude, and rough around the edges—but with second-person as his ally, we the readers readily empathize with him.
In Diggers’ first poem, he is in a traffic jam on his way to work, worried whether he is going to make it on time or not. It is not until we get to the line: “Maybe you’ll be late for work after all” that you realize he is kind of hoping he will be late. He is a man going to a job he hates, but he is going anyway. I am reminded of walking to school, hoping there would be an accident or some natural catastrophe that would make me late, for no other reason than to be late. However, I knew if I were late, I would be in trouble, so I kept walking, conforming to the rules but at the same time, wanting to break them.
In “ Diggers Thanksgiving” we have a man whose parents are senile, probably at too young an age, and Digger thinks:
You think of putting them in a home.
You remember as a child
pulling the wings off flies:
so delicious, so delicious.
What can you do? How does anybody justify doing something unpleasant? Become apathetic? Hardened?
What does a person do when they feel trapped in their lives? How do he or she think? Probably, something like this:
The sky darkens into night
while you shovel and lift
the wet thinning snow…..
you bend down again
for the heart attack
you know will kill you.
Digger experiences the feast/famine predicament too:
You drink beer after beer
on your porch staring
at your sun-scorched lawn
on our first weekend off
in two months.
Your neighbor’s lawn mowers growl
at you from all directions
If it don’t grow
Then I don’t have to cut it,
You think, but lift yourself
at last out of the broken rungs
of your chair and move
toward the side of the house…
you unweave the hose tangled
from the girls’ water fight
like it’s a rope on a ship—
you are in a late movies you saw last week—
you are on the ocean and this rope
anchors you down.
Suddenly the hose unkinks
and squirts you in the face.
It’s not salt water,
You stand in the driveway
watering the lawn, garden
the side of the house
holding the limp hose,
pissing on everything.
Digger is working overtime. His first weekend off in two months and what does he have to do? Take care of his lawn, that status symbol lying in front of his house that shows everyone in the neighborhood who he is, how he conforms to the norm. He must maintain your lawn. It is expected. Most effective about this poem is Daniels’ choice of words at particular times. The “mowers growl” shows how Digger feels they are nagging him to get to his lawn work. Then, “ holding the limp hose,” reveals Digger’s feeling of impotence. Finally, “pissing on everything.” tells how digger still can remain defiant in his thoughts.
In part three of the collection we go back to the first person. “Short Order Cook,” one of the best of the collection, is a wonderful poem about the pride and ambitions of the minimum-wage worker. But in the next poem, the cook reveals his feelings of helplessness:
“I don’t need to be smart
to work here.”
The grease sticks to my skin
A slimy reminder
Of what my future holds.
Places/Everyone is an exceptional first book. Daniels’ voice is young, but not immature—it resonates with the authority of one who has worked many jobs and seen many places. Daniels’ language is simple, but that renders the personae in the poems. Digger, the main character, portrays the typical working-class Joe—the internal rebel and the external conformist, the one who gets up early to go to work everyday even when he feels the job is not what he should be doing—and that reveals the main theme of the book—conformity. You will enjoy Daniels’ depictions of Motor City life, and even if you were not born in Detroit, you will feel ethos because this book reaches out to Everyperson everywhere who has worked at least one honest job.