BooksWeekend

Poetry from the Picket Line

Two poets, veterans of university unionization campaigns, chart the growing crisis of the new intellectual working class

Sometimes a book or work of art is so brilliant and simple in its concept, structure, or execution that you feel a kind of pleasurable jealousy when you experience it. It’s hard not to wish you’d thought of such works as you behold their simple elegance.

But on rarer occasions, a book or an artwork is so vital, and so particular to its time and place, that it feels touched by a genie, hard-won from its lamp. And you feel something else. Not jealousy — because you couldn’t possibly have thought of it in the first place — nor simple admiration, nor wonder, nor awe. Perhaps it’s a kind of pity for those who may never know the work. Such works wear the stains of their labor to close to the surface. They’re messier, yes, and less Platonic in their genesis, more base, more human.

It’s No Good Everything’s Bad by Stephanie Young and General Motors by Ryan Eckes fall squarely into this latter category.

Apropos of labor, both Young and Eckes worked as labor organizers at Mills College in Oakland and Temple University in Philadelphia, respectively, where they took part in rare successful unionization campaigns. Like many other marginally employed writers and artists, they’re among the 75 to 80 percent of teachers who adjunct at the college level. As poets and teachers, their work bookends the growing crisis of the new intellectual working class who often work for what amounts to less than minimum wage with no job security or benefits at colleges and universities across the country.

Stephanie Young’s writing finds company with a small handful of poets practicing a form of institutional critique (of poetic institutions, as well as philanthropy, and university politics in her case). Her body is often the site of her critiques. As in two of her previous books — Ursula or University (2013) and Anti-Surveillance Feminist Hair & Makeup Party — It’s No Good Everything’s Bad confronts the awkward places where ideas and ideologies meet personalities and their bodies. From the first lines of this chapbook-length poem, you’re invited into the mess:

the day of the gender strike I stayed in bed

with my ruptured ovarian cyst

hot water bottle and spreadsheet

 

Body meet politics.

As she does in Ursula or University, Young engages the work of another writer and positions her voice within a conversation of books. Here she takes up with the Russian poet Kirill Medvedev, whose 2012 book of poems in translation, It’s No Good (Ugly Duckling and N+1), makes up half the title of Young’s book. (The other half is her own half-joking “translation,” Everything’s Bad.)

so I lay in bed and read It’s No Good

Kirill’s poems and essay translated by Keith Gessen

then got up, started to write this

at the reading the day before the strike Kirill said the thing he likes about translation is the inherent critique of private property, the fact that anyone can take his work and do something else with it.

And Young does just that — she translates not Medvedev’s languages, but rather his assertions from his essay “My Fascism,” into her own life and body. This takes place shortly after hearing him read at Mills College, after the rupture of her ovarian cyst a day later, a week after she attended a tony philanthropic gala for her partner’s theater company, and not long after Donald Trump assumed the presidency amid accusations of Russian interference in the election. Who better to help translate her — and our — current political and intersectional cultural dilemmas than a poet who lived, wrote, and agitated under Putin for the past 15 years? Young makes it work as she abruptly toggles between stanzas of lined poetry and discursive paragraphs of prose on Mevedev’s thoughts, such as:

I guess you could say I did a good job at the gala

the development consultant said I was a natural

someone should slap a nametag on me

she praised my dress

I’d been waiting for the chance to confess its price, $27

and where I got it, Forever 21

And then:

MY FASCISM is an essay about the relation of politics and art in 2004 in Russia, how some artists on the far right had made a powerfully vital, syncretic, and dangerous art. Kirill argues against attachment to an idealized past, the old culture: In Russia right now we’re all frankensteins, pieced together from various dead traditions. The maximum that we have, right now, is air.

What makes this poem so vital is the enjambments of thought and feeling, which feel like thought and feeling. They present the uncomfortable texture of life’s constant cultural collisions and wrecks without forced transitions. For Young, the political isn’t just personal — it’s almost unfathomably intimate, messy, and gross. The poem allows for the whole range of experience as it skips from the implied irony of a lavish party to raise money for the arts to the dark physical comedy of Young’s own body as it shambles through the endless insults, indignities, and micropolitics of the medical industrial complex. And then it cycles, in high refrains, through love and care, the gender strike, and Medvedev’s politically urgent writings, all of which lend meaning and structure to the mess of life.

The cover image of Ryan Eckes’s latest, General Motors, reveals much of what to expect inside: the two rounded, rubber handrails at the entrance of an escalator stick out of a green makeshift wall to nowhere. Very much a poet of place in the spirit of William Carlos Williams with Paterson, Eckes’s first two books, Old News (2011) and Valu-Plus (2014, both Furniture Press Books) were devoted to the dark music of some very particular histories the dark music of his hometown, Philadelphia.

But Eckes goes wide in General Motors, taking on the auto industry’s methodical destruction of the infrastructure of early-20th-century public transportation. He loosely casts Philly as Toontown from the Robert Zemeckis animation and live action film Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), in which a greedy Judge Doom wants to destroy a population of cartoon characters in order to build a highway through their neighborhood. Eckes casts himself as the gumshoe Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), unwinding the auto-industry’s plot to destroy public transportation.

In the first part of the book, “chase scenes,” Eckes upends this staple of American action cinema by reinventing chase scenes as prose poems set between the cracks of late-capitalist boredom.

we’re in toon town. gag order pause a judge up the creek like

a FREE sign taped to garbage. your life is whose? the trees sneeze

and cough, we’re all dirty water, minor poets.

The “chase” of these scenes is all in the wit and anarchy:

we’re in a chik-fil-a spiking the sweet tea w/ birth control.

the deep state of cumming hard spreads an all caps hush of

southern hospitality.

And:

                        listen, where

we left off i was saying don’t play basketball when i’m talking about

heraclitus. but you play basketball. and i talk about heraclitus. we

dribble in the same river twice. the river is broke and the blackbird

is flying. the adjunct, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

 A palpable and satisfying rage drives these poems. It’s the rage of poet who understands that perhaps the best defense against the logic of late capitalism and its constant devaluation of labor and community is a license to confuse. Eckes is developing his own logic for what follows in part II, “spurs.” Here, he dusts off an old trolley map that shows a system of lines that would have connected many of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods through a spoke and hub system had it been completed, and he grafts his own personal history onto the city’s geography. Each poem is an elegy for the lost city of his memories and for what it could have been and never was. Cars, as well as the forces of the auto industry that halted the trolley spurs’ completion, act as erasers. Eckes circles back to Roger Rabbit to make his point:

In real life, Judge Doom was General Motors, which along with Standard Oil, Firestone tires, Mack, and Philips Petroleum, conspired to dismantle streetcar systems across the USA in the 1930s and 40s. They succeeded by using a front company called National City Lines. I learned this on 11th St. one day waiting for the 23 bus, which takes you to Germantown…. A hundred years ago Philly had 550 miles of track and a fleet of 2,000 trolleys. Then came the rise of the car, which is an eraser.

Like Young, Eckes deftly moves back and forth between poetry and prose to build the emotional rhythm that allows for the kind of “news” that William Carlos Williams found lacking in the news:

The American solution to a public problem, created by private industry, is usually to find a new way to steal from the public. Robbing your neighbor, in other words, is an American tradition, and it thrives in Northeast Philly, where people live as if their neighbors do not really exist. Believing in the American dream is a way to deny your own existence.

Eckes always returns from such sweeping statements to the personal, and the heart of General Motors comes toward the end of this second section: he reproduces a letter from his grandmother in which she included his grandfather’s old union badge. A photograph of the badge is beneath the letter. It’s from the Quaker Rubber Corporation, which made the rubber for escalator railings. His grandfather, the letter notes, lost his pension when the company was sold and the new owner refused to recognize the contract.

And the stakes are just as real for Eckes. In the third section, “strikes,” he includes an email exchange with the head of the English department at Temple University regarding the seemingly sudden disappearance of the courses he’d taught. It’s depressing stuff that reminds us there’s always a lower low to which any institution — even the supposedly enlightened University — is liable to stoop. But Eckes, like Young, is not afraid of the institution, nor is he afraid to spell it out. In the poem “Memo for Labor,” he widens the frame as far as it will go, to show that the whole world is Toontown now:

you cannot separate the job from the house from the rent from

the earth from the food from the healthcare from the water from

the transit from the war from the schools from the prisons from

the war from the water from the house from the healthcare from

the war from the transit from the schools from the food from the

job from the prisons from the rent from the earth

Taken together, It’s No Good Everything’s Bad and General Motors feel like a reawakening of old, important truths about labor in new, urgent, and direct poetic forms. Here’s hoping the genius they conjure will not go easily back into the lamp.

It’s No Good Everything’s Bad (2018) by Stephanie Young is published by Doublecross Press.

General Motors (2018) by Ryan Eckes is published by Split Lip Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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