“Researching” and “The Pain from my Childhood,” poems by Stephen Page, have been published in Last Leaves’ first issue (on pages 78 and 101). Download the .pdf to read the magazine (for free). Check out the whole issue.
What Work Is
By Philip Levine
77 pages. Alfred A Knopf Books, $15.00.
Reviewed by Stephen Page
Philip Levine is the voice of the working class, the undereducated, the unambitious. He speaks for those who do not know how to speak for themselves or were never taught how to stand up for themselves. He gives voice to those who never thought to ask, “Is this what work is really all about?” He creates portraitures of laborers and brings them to life, allowing them to communicate to the reader, even if it is only through their actions. Levine, a master artist, after giving the subjects sound and movement, mutes them again, paints them back into their frames.
We are drawn into the first poem, a rendering of man wearing rubber protective gear and a respirator descending the steps into a pickling tank to work with a cocktail of hydrochloric acid and other caustic chemicals. The man knows of the dangers of his job, but continues to go down into the tank twice a day. At lunch he sits apart from the other workers in silence. He is proud that the other workers know him only by his nickname, and proud that his dangerous job gives him reputation and meaning in life.
The second poem, “Coming Close,” mootably the best of the collection, begins with the narrator pausing for a moment to scrutinize a fellow worker to whom he delivers parts:
Take this quiet woman, she has been
standing before a polishing wheel
for over three hours, and she lacks
over twenty minutes before she can take
a lunch break. Is this a woman?
Consider the arms as they press
the long brass tube against the buffer,
they are striated along the triceps,
the three heads of which clearly show.
Consider the fine dusting of dark down
above the upper lip, and the beads
of sweat that run from under the red
kerchief across the brow….
then lifting with a gasp, the first word
of tenderness between the two of you,
then you must bring new trays of dull,
unpolished tubes. You must feed her,
as they say in the language of the place.
Make no mistake, the place has a language,
and if by some luck the power were cut,
the wheel slowed to a stop…she would turn
to you and say, “Why?” Not the old why
of why must I spend five nights a week?”
Just “Why” even if by some magic
you knew, you wouldn’t dare speak
for fear of her laughter, which now
you have anyway as she places the five
tapering fingers of her filthy hand
on the arm of your white shirt to mark
you for your own, now and forever.
The narrator is aghast at the appearance of the worker, thinks it a mutation, an unnatural being. It is only at the end of the poem that he admits she is a woman, with the image of the feminine fingers. There is no direct conversation between them, only their mutual knowledge of work slang, a gasp, her laughter, and a final physical touch. She doesn’t question her existence, would only question why the wheel stopped, if it did, as if her work were her only means of identity. The narrator does not tell but allows you to figure out that it is possibly the work that has changed her physical appearance.
In “Growth,” we have another statement on the dumb self-image:
In the soap factory where I worked
when I was fourteen, I spoke to
no one and only on man spoke
where I hammered and sawed, singing
my new life of working and earning,
outside in the fresh air of Detroit
in 1942, a year of growth.
The boy, bursting into adolescence and the age of individuality, celebrates his place in the world by being proud he is earning money, not a bad thing considering it is a time of high unemployment, but he is not even considering the dangers of working in a soap factory. There is only a snide remark on the polluted air of Detroit. He feels no need to talk to anyone. He identifies himself through his newly found job as if it were a badge pinned on him saying, hey, this is who I am.
“Among Children” is a portrayal of a schoolteacher in a fourth grade classroom. His students are the children of the factory workers that live in and around Flint. They are at naptime, a metaphor for how they are inevitably going to sleep their way through life, “so as to be ready for what is ahead,” slaving silently at dangerous jobs until they meet death. The children at ten years old are already being trained as physical laborers, evident by:
…how there backs have thickened,
how their small hands, soiled by pig iron,
leap and stutter even in dreams.
The teacher has no words of encouragement for them, no hope that they will be anything else in life other than what they are, what they were born into. He even reflects back to their births, stating, “not one said, I am sick, I am tired, I want to go home,” revealing personalities that will be perfect for silent acceptance into the working life.
In another teacher-student poem, “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School,” the teacher makes a diagonal line across the blackboard and asks, “What have I done?” Several children offer logical answers, “You’ve broken a piece of chalk,” “you have created the hypotenuse of an isosceles triangle,” “you have begun to represent the roof of a barn,” “You’ve begun to separate the dark from the dark,” but M. Degas is waiting for only one answer—hers. This is a statement on conformity, the taking away of free thought that is prevalent in working-class public schools, and perhaps for a reason. How else will these students grow up and tolerate their grinding lives if they are not taught to accept authority. An orange is blue, if that is what the boss tells you. And, you, the worker, will agree, may even come to believe it.
The collection ends with “The Seventh Summer,” a poem about the narrator’s problems with his Jewishness. He receives all kinds of flak for his religious identity, and for several hours one fine summer Sunday, he doubts his teachings and his God. He spends the afternoon enjoying the beauty of the world and life, thinking that it could possibly be the suffering of the Son of God who made salvation possible. In the end, he rescinds into himself and his belief, though he never tells anyone, never stands up for himself. He slips out of the poem in silence, holding his head down with his Christian friends during grace, abstaining from saying the words, most definitely not thankful for what is being fed to him, and not accepting the norm.
Levine is from Detroit, where most of these poems take place. Unlike most of the people portrayed in What Work Is, Levine went to college and received a degree. He, unlike his portraitures, chose to do physical labor because he wanted a non-thinking job in order to free his mind to write. Levine offers no hope for the majority of the working class, offers no solution for the masses. He offers no demonstrations, no sit-down strikes, no cry against working conditions, no ripple in the fabric of society. There is only hope for the individual, not for the group. Does that diminish from the collection? On the contrary, it is non-didactic. By exposing these conditions Levine allows the readers to draw their own conclusions, to learn from the mistakes of others. Yes, Levine deserves the recognition he received for this book. He is a master poet—a maestro of maestros.
This review first published in the Buenos Aires Herald.
Elizabeth Gauffreau’s Reviews > The Salty River Bleeds
It was amazing!
Stephen Page’s poetry collection The Salty River Bleeds continues the story of eco-rancher Jonathan and his wife Teresa begun in A Ranch on the Salty River. In the opening poem, “Jonathan Goes to Search for It at Sunset,” he is still searching for The Myth, but “Once again he is left standing / some hundreds of meters from Wood / because he finds his pants are much too thin / to cross the lots with thistle.” This poem sets the warp and weft of Jonathan’s search for meaning in middle age as the collection unfolds.
These poems are finely-crafted and accessible, with a compelling voice. Page employs a range of poetic forms, including the epistolary ”Dear Nephew” and “Dear Father,” the prose poem “On a Breath-Mist Morning,” and the confessional “Your Violet Hair Ribbon.” I liked how the use of different forms left me a little off-balance as a reader, not knowing quite what to expect–which echoes Jonathan’s life on the ranch.
The conflict Jonathan struggles with is between obligation and personal fulfillment: the compromises we have to make to earn a living and meet family obligations–and the emotional and spiritual cost these compromises can sometimes bring. In Jonathan’s case, the cost is the necessity to harden himself to carry on his constant battle with dishonest and malingering ranch employees. As he notes in “Tattler, Too”:
My armor is intact.
I had reason it keep it on.
. . . .
I have learned to lie and I don’t like it.
I didn’t realize until my second reading that Obligation is actually personified in the introduction to the collection, “Proem”:
His hair is black, as are his eyes, beard, suit, and tie.
He holds a folded newspaper under his arm.
He smiles at the Beauty of Ranch.
I read A Ranch on the Salty River, immediately followed by The Salty River Bleeds. I would encourage other readers to do the same. The first book introduces us to Jonathan and provides glimpses into his thoughts and desires as he works the land in a foreign country to make a living. The Salty River Bleeds gives us his dark night of the soul. Will Jonathan emerge from his dark night to live in Wood, where he belongs? The penultimate poem of the collection, “The Salty River,” provides his vision of “the End”:
The Cultivators were nowhere to be seen,
their noxious machinery fumes and pesticides
not clouding the air or poisoning the Earth.
The Gauchos were all in their homes
With their families, eating, or drinking mate.
However, the closing poem of the collection, “Ennui: Old Man,” suggests not:
I never see him stopped.,
sitting down, or drinking coffee
in a truck stop.
He is always walking,
For me, the best poetry is experienced viscerally first. It then resonates to the heart and continues resonating until it reaches the head. This is just how I experienced The Salty River Bleeds. Jonathan stayed with me for days after I finished reading the book. Kudos to the poet!
Thanks to the poets for contributing to The Pandemic Issue #6 from North of Oxford and Mary M. Michaels for graciously providing her art. In order of appearance we present: Henry Crawford, Megha Sood, Sheila Allen with Emily Jensen, Kerry Trautman, M. J. Arcangelini, Stephen Bochinski, Christine Riddle, Maria Keane, Marko Otten, Patricia Carragon, Jonel Abellanosa, Stephen Page, […]North of Oxford – The Pandemic Issue #6 — North of Oxford
I am sitting in our dull-gray
Pathetically petite rental car
With the cracked windshield and tiny
(Last Friday Teresa smashed our sleek
White SUV that drives like a yacht
Gliding over calm waters)
Alone, my mask around my neck,
Waiting for my her
To finish grocery shopping
(Only one family member
Is allowed entrance at any time).
When will I ever learn?
I have been here before,
I have been here before,
I have been here before,
Thousands of times
(Though mostly before the mask),
Hungry, thirsty, hours
Worrying if maybe she had fallen,
And medics are attending to her,
(I don’t have my phone, and she left hers
With me to hold onto)
But knowing that most likely
She was wandering inside the clothing stores
Inside the shopping mall
That just reopened,
Only to know, that as I don my mask and enter
A hunting/fishing gear store that opens
From the parking lot, that she will
Reappear outside as soon as I enter,
Looking for me,
Searching the parking lot
For me and our ugly rental car.
I purchase a camouflage backpack,
A 9 mm pistol, a hunting knife,
and a hand-size stun device.
I stuff the three defense/attack components into
The outside pocket of the pack,
And as I exit the store,
There she is, wandering the lot,
Her arms stretched, her shoulders hunched, holding
Bags filled with things
Only she thinks we need,
Having no idea that she is late
For an appointment with our lawyer
Concerning the accident, or that I
Had been waiting for hours.
I am past starvation and dehydration,
But I smile behind my mask
As I walk toward her.
I gently lift the packages from her surgical-gloved
Somehow I forgot to post these. Here they are, 5 poems from Stephen Page that were first published on Poetry Pacific and later published in “A Ranch Bordering The Salty River” and “The Salty River Bleeds”:
The Salty River Bleeds by Stephen Page
This is genuine good writing. This is not a walk in the gew gaw shop of strained emotions and overreaching images. This is writing carved from the raw material of actual living and work. There are narratives and there are lyrics with each word penetrating its subject like the point of a knife. There are good guys and there are bad guys and they are all exposed with a language that flies straight to the truth. “How long did you take to flay those sheep whose skins lie so limply wet in your truck?” Pay attention. This guy, Stephen Page, is going to make some noise in the shining cathedral of poetry.
–Rustin Larson, author of Library Rain https://rustinlarson.wordpress.com
Stephen Page’s Literary Rep breezed through Indiana, stayed a few days in Indianapolis, ate healthy food, and donated books to libraries and bookstores.
Beech Grove Branch Library
Kranett Public Library
Garfield Branch Public Library
Fountain Square Branch Public Library
Indiana State Public Library
Barnes & Noble Indiana University
A Traveller Who Saw Many University of Tennessee Hats Wandered Through Knoxville While Delivering Books by Stephen Page is Given Free Laundry Service By Citi Hills Church. Books Were delivered to:
Lawson McGhee Library
Knoxville County Public Library
McKay Used Books
The Family Bubble Laundromat
and many other bookstores and libraries
#ecoLiterature #ecoPoetry #spreadTheNews #saveOurPlanet #noPesticides
A U of M Fan (Who also likes Michigan State) visited Ann Arbor, ate At Knight’s, mailed packages, and left books at the following locations:
Ann Arbor West Side Bookshop
Ann Arbor District Library
AADL Public Library
Mr. Stadium Laundry