Poetry and People’s History: Places We Called Home

Poetry is not everyone’s cup of tea, I know.  Modernist poetry in particular has a reputation for being obscure and self-obsessed.   But there is also a vein of contemporary poetry that speaks powerfully to our condition as a society, and much of it in recent decades has come from a working-class rather than an elite perspective.

Jim Daniels and Jeanne Bryner are exemplary writers whose poetry is rooted in the everyday experience of working people and written in ways most of us can appreciate.  They convey the clear vision, emotional connections, and truth-telling that good poetry offers.  And in their most recent books they illuminate local and personal histories of the times we are living through.

Bryner’s No Matter How Many Windows (Wind Publications, 2010) is the winner of the 2011 Tillie Olsen Prize from the Working-Class Studies Association.   Working from years of research into family history, she has pieced together the stories of four generations of women – her great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and herself – who made their lives in rural West Virginia and industrial Ohio.

Daniels’s From Milltown to Malltown (Marick Press, 2010) is a collaboration with fellow-writer Jane McCafferty and photographer Charlee Brodsky, all of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.    Its juxtaposion of documentary photographs with imaginative writing it evokes Daniels and Brodsky’s previous collaboration on Street (Bottom Dog Press, 2007), which won the WCSA’s Tillie Olsen Prize in 2007.   Whereas Street offers images, voices, and stories from across Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, here the focus is squarely on the town of Homestead, Pennsylvania – an iconic site of labor history – and the changes wrought there by deindustrialization.

When you drive across the high level bridge towards the town, you look down at the former site of the mighty Homestead Works of US Steel, built on two miles of flatland in a bend of the Monogahela river.  This is now home to The Waterfront, “a mega shopping center, complete with surrounding town houses, a hotel, fast food drive-thrus, upscale restaurants, and every imaginable chain store.” Along the access road towards Costco,

Eight smokestacks rise above the carefully manicured lawn

as if eager to perform, to spell out L-O-N-G-H-O-R-N

in symmetrical puffs of meat-flavored smoke

 from the steakhouse nestled underneath these towering relics from the mill.

 At night, they’re lit up artistically, though no plaque

explains history, no fire burns inside.

From Milltown to Malltown is divided into the two sections indicated by the title, as Homestead itself is divided.  This is not only a story of historical displacement: from old world to new world.  The steel mill has been replaced by retail development, but the mill-town – with its houses, churches, bars, and schools – is still there, albeit run-down and underpopulated.  That old community and the new mall confront each other across the dividing line of the railroad tracks.

In the book’s “Milltown” section, one photograph shows a bank building with a portico of columns out front, bearing a large “Available” sign and a realtor’s number to call, in case you’re in the market for a grandiose financial institution (7).  In another photograph, “Window Shopping,” we see storefronts and a shopper, but the empty windows offer nothing to look at or buy.  In the accompanying poem, the woman bundled in her parka is “heading toward / some place that’s open. / Maybe even home.”

Contrast this with the Victoria’s Secret window in the Malltown section, where a lingerie manikin seems to offer other more exotic possibilities:

There should be a door on her plastic leg.

The door would have a nice brass handle.

You open it and guess what?

There is another world.

The longing for another world, and with it another identity, seems to be what is now manufactured in place of steel.  In “Future Residents Parking Only”:

. . . the point is, I’d like to leave these parts,

drive to land I’ve never seen before,

wake up in the body of another,

begin again as someone bound for glory.

Waterfront shoppers and future residents are in the market for a glory-land very different from that of the train-travelers in the old song.  Whereas the steel mill was a place of production, the mall is dedicated to consumption.   Brodsky’s “Malltown” photographs present an entirely commodified landscape of endless parking lots, unrelieved brick walls, identical trimmed shrubs, among which restless shoppers perform the labor of consumption:

Shopping’s hard work, I don’t care what anybody says.

Ask my back.  Ask the hard floor, the automatic doors.

Days indoors with an empty cart . . .

Why use poetry to explore the human meaning of these historical changes?  Perhaps because poetry is itself a language of transformation.  In Daniels’s and McCafferty’s readings of Brodsky’s images, by turns witty and tender, these transformations are often startling:  Abandoned shopping carts become cattle grazing across the vast asphalt plains of the parking lots.   A “House with Flag” is turned into a ship by “kids / whose vocabulary is shaped by a desire / to be elsewhere.”  On a construction site, “The tree would like to have a few words / with all interested parties.  The sound / of machinery drowns out its whispers.”  In poems like these, though, we can hear them.

If From Milltown to Malltown illuminates a visual record of urban change, Bryner’s work, by contrast, dramatizes private histories unfolding in the rural-industrial spaces of northern Appalachia, where mining, farming, and mill-labor go on side by side.  She sees herself as “mining” the “connective tissue” of her family, their relationships to each other and to the places where they have made their homes.   No Matter How Many Windows, although its gaze is more interior and personal, also illuminates the larger historical changes of rural depopulation and outmigration to industrial towns, particularly as these affect the lives of women.

The poem from which the book’s title is taken, “Bertha’s Tenth Wedding Anniversary, April 21, 1908,” sets the theme of indoor work:

A woman becomes a man’s bouquet,

but it’s a chore to keep flowers alive.

So much handling in a house

no matter how many windows.

There’s never enough light.

The call-and-response poem “I Hear These Women Talking to Mama, Backyard, Ohio Projects, 1958” shows much they miss those country homes:

I want a real porch.  I want to see the stars again.


Even for an hour.


Even if it’s raining.

                                                                        Lord, let the kids be outside.

Some of Bryner’s women forbears left letters and journal entries, but much of their history was unrecorded or silenced, and she has used interviews and imaginative recreation to give them voice, as suggested in “Things Mama Learned the Hard Way”:

I used to make up stories.  When I died

they burned them in a garbage can.

Maybe you could write a little bit

about my life, there was nothing to it, really.

Nothing, that is, unless you count the trials these four generations of women lived through, including a stillbirth (“l abor without pay”), an infant’s death while in the care of his young sister, a three-year-old’s scalding at the stove, a four-year old’s polio, another child’s cerebral palsy, a father’s abandoning the family, a grown son’s death working construction, running booze for moonshiners, jail-time, mental illness, cancer.

If that list makes the book sound like depressing reading, it really isn’t.  Bryner handles these events without sentimentality, and her poems evoke the strength it takes to make do, hold things together, and look to the future.  There are also shining moments of love and connection to celebrate and savor: a lost child found on a neighbor’s porch, a daughter reading Wuthering Heights aloud, a new bookshelf, a picnic by the waterfall, a pottery class, feeding lambs.  And there is a wisdom that derives from deep experience:

Love is a country

and vows about forever a gate, the weakest part of a fence.

If Daniels and McCafferty draw metaphors from playful readings of Brodsky’s photographs, Bryner’s metaphors emerge from the literal language of farming and mining.  She uses images of digging in the garden and underground to explain the poet’s work of unearthing and connecting.  The book’s final poem “Chores” begins:

Before dawn, I get out of bed, lift my spade,

dig for something that lends grace or beauty

to the task of record keeping.

And ends:

I know the horses are gone, the farm house sags

And to live anyplace in this world is a risk and a gamble.

On the evidence of the poems in both these books, it’s a risk and a gamble worth taking, with every new day, even if we find ourselves living on the edge of a malltown.

Nick Coles

Nick Coles teaches working-class literature at the University of Pittsburgh.  He is the incoming president of the Working-Class Studies Association.

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2 Responses to Poetry and People’s History: Places We Called Home

  1. Thank you for this great review.


  2. Pingback: Working-Class Monday « The Scrapper Poet

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