Is it Tuesday? Every Tuesday a new poem appears in the box and on the blog.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Poem 35 Katrina Vandenberg


Oarlock, Oar (Y, W, V, U, F)
  
by Katrina Vandenberg



still I hail from smokestacks girders closed

factories McClouth Steel’s poured slag turning the night

sky and black river orange the tight typeface of houses

in River Rouge Wyandotte the steel and auto tribes

tribe of the alphabet job shops the fathers who set

metal lathes on screw machines to make in multiples

in sixes packets of ear plugs the men made deaf shift

changes at three the line must never stop nothing could

not mothers who taught us the alphabet shapes

of oxen boats houses camels letters row on row

to prop us up row the ideas forward the spear

the snake the needle tooth Y W V U and F

all hailing from the same tribe the same hieroglyph father

oar or oarlock depending the alphabet not unlike

the world we lived in once we lived in there the letters

trundled forth on their tracks boxcars shaking full

of gleaming two-doors leather seats body by Fisher

and yes I hail from unbeautiful artifice things

that made us late (barred tracks flashed lights opened

bridges) a tribe of shipbuilders iron ore taconite men

whose hands would not wash clean the machinery

and the machinery of the river the made thing

more important than we were the things themselves

not the idea of them I thought the letters books

a different place the books were not the way

out but in the letters embodying mirroring making what is

the oarlock what the oar still I hail from the Grosse Ile crew

team pulling on the river before school matching letter

jackets forgotten on the dock the catch release of blades


From the very first lines of this incredible poem--the title poem--from Katrina Vandenberg's wonderful 2012 book The Alphabet Not Unlike the World, the life of the industrial workforce in mid-century Detroit crashes against the life of the mind, of words, of art. The speaker inhabits the second world--she speaks in a poem, after all--and yet the first words of the poem are "still I hail from" and that "still" starting things off, without capitalization, indicates that the past is in her, even if she is far from Grosse Ile, even if the world she describes no longer exists.

So "still" starts us off. What a risky way to start a poem, just dropping the reader right into the middle of things. The poem's energy pulls the reader along: 
"still I hail from smokestacks girders closed/factories McClouth Steel’s poured slag turning the night/sky and black river orange the tight typeface of houses"

Notice here the number of things in these first three lines. Smokestacks. Girders. Closed factories. Slag. The strong and hearty verb "hail." The gorgeous linebreak at "closed/factories." The nouns ground us in world where fathers "set/ metal lathes on screw machines" and "whose hands would not wash clean." Furthermore, the syntax and linebreaks of this poem mimic the relentless push of the assembly line and the brutally hard work of the (mostly) men who worked it. 

But this is also a world where "mothers...taught us the alphabet shapes/of oxen boats houses camels letters row on row/to prop us up row the ideas forward". Literacy is the "prop" that will "row" the next generation forward. The work of the mothers is to help their children have access to a different life.

What is so wonderful about this poem, though, is the speaker's refusal to choose a life enabled by education over the place she came from. Instead of seeing education, language, literacy--poetry--as an escape, she suggests that the poems come from the place of her origin. Remember, the poem begins with "still." All these "unbeautiful...things" make poems: 

the world we lived in once we lived in there the letters
trundled forth on their tracks boxcars shaking full
of gleaming two-doors leather seats 

The boxcars carrying the seats for automobiles are parts of a personal language, and from this language the speaker makes her poems.

This poem, like many in the book, is also an exploration of the origins of the alphabet. When the speaker writes "Y W V U and F/all hailing from the same tribe the same hieroglyph father" we know, in the second use of "hail" that she is writing about the origins of our language and the origins of her own. 

The poem ends with an image of the high school crew team on the water, leaving their letter jackets on the dock:


still I hail from the Grosse Ile crew
team pulling on the river before school matching letter
jackets forgotten on the dock the catch release of blades

This image works in so many ways. The school girls "row...forward" on the river in the way their mothers hoped they would on the alphabet. Their jackets are letter jackets. Their oars catch and release the water, echoing the ways the poem deftly catches the past, honors it, transforms it into art, and then moves on, leaving the reader balanced there on that "blade" between past and present, between the "unbeautiful" and the beautiful, between the work of the body and the work of the mind. A gorgeous poem. A gorgeous book. 

For more information about The Alphabet Not Unlike the World, please go to http://milkweed.org/shop/product/290/the-alphabet-not-unlike-the-world/

Vandenberg's first book, Atlas, (also wonderful) is available:

1 comment:

  1. Please keep writing these! I have always found poems to be a tad too metaphorical at times which makes it hard for me to access them emotionally. Butitings have been such a joy to read and have given me a deep aesthetic experience when reading the poems for which I am very grateful and so very hopeful that this isn't the last post.

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