Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The poor are patronized, Baseball gets punked

Lucas Howell couldn't cram enough conditional observations into this over-alert lyric; the poet, seemingly a sympathetic lyric writer by nature (or conceit) wanted to get to the core of the bleak reality of the coal miner's as they emerge from the mines. It's an inelegant pile-on of elegant phrase making where we are, in effect, instructed not to miss the point that these men have extraordinarily hard lives the likes of which we can read about in poems like this.


Out of the broad, open land they come.
Out of a coal seam's
hundred-thousand tons
of overburden, out of shit-reek barns
and shearing pens,
or down from the powder blue
derrick platforms of howling Cyclone rigs
they rung by rung descend.




This isn't bad writing as it goes, but very little of this kind of tone goes a long , long way to the point he wants to make, which seems less about the lives of the workers than it is , perversely, the bragging rights Howell claims as being the witness to both and consequently imagine them in language that makes their lives more vivid, hence more real. Had he moved on from his set up in the first stanza we could have done something different with this poet's acute sense of detail, but the second stanza brings us the example of a writer who isn't sure he'd closed the deal with the reader; Howell tips his hand and lays bare the set up he's arranging with gratuitous of qualitative pronouncements, as in the rather unremarkable and trite observance of



They come bearing the weight
of lives and labor on their boot heels,
a week of night shifts,
or the prairie sun's relentless arc.


We're to shed tears, on cue with the faux-folk music of dulcimer , guitar and fiddle , as we are given over to archetypes culled from Walker Evans' famed portraits of working poor whites. Crushing weight, long work shifts, a punishing heat, life here is presented as it might seem to the casual witness, bleak and hard and beset with no relief. But there's more coming, a conspicuous twist that you sense coming ; one set of detailed if cliched images emphasising a community's unglamorous obligation to go into the earth cannot pass without an equivalent arrangement emerging at the half way mark. It surely does, and Howell lays out all the cards he's been holding--the innate dignity of the human spirit cannot be crushed by the far off requirements of corporate interest, no sir, these men , tired and calloused as they are, reaffirm their dignity and their love of community with game of baseball. The game is not just the national pass time, it is the miracle elixir, the magic bullet for physical pains and complaints of alienated labor. One half way waits for a Liberal Guilt siren to sound; the aim of the poem is solely to create a comfort zone with which those made uncomfortable with unadorned facts might wrap themselves, give a nod, and then walk away.



But here, beneath the lights of Bicentennial Park,
these men work the stiffness
from their shoulders,
crow-hop and sling the ball sharply
around the horn. No matter
who they've become
in the years since boyhood, the game's
muscular beauty remains.


Transformation and transcendence and resurrection are the themes here, and the power of play is the device through which these workers cease , for the time being, being stooped shouldered and regain the elan vital that was plentiful in their youth. It's not that the therapeutic benefits of sports are false--life without games, play, physical recreation wouldn't worth sticking around for--but rather that Howell reduces what he's been witness to a convenient narrative structure that reports the hardship and then no so subtly, gracefully, nor convincingly turns around and provides a homily to convince himself, if not the reader, that something beautiful flourishes, thrives even in the midst of pulverizing ly hard and repetitive work. The last stanza is dreadful and spiked with the shards of truism platitude, and disingenuousness.



And the small victories
sustain them—a well-timed swing, or dusty
headfirst-dive for home—
as they disband,
again, into the world from which
they take their living.


This is a pompous and false dichotomy, that the laborers relish their game and find the "small victories" to be a satisfactory compensation for their dangerous work and poor pay, and it strongly implies that this is the way it needs to be. It's awful enough that Lucas Howell doesn't trust his own skill a writer to make his points and inferences without sticking instructional billboards along the trail of his thinking, but he adds an insult to injury with the banality of his insight. This man is the least interesting poet I've read in years.