Monday, January 14, 2008

Jason Irwin's "Watering the Dead"

A postcard announcing a new book of poetry:

Jason's time at Sarah Lawrence overlapped with mine. He was the mentor for this international student from Singapore who was the only one to turn up dutifully for Jason's guided tour of the campus, and the village, as Bronxville likes to be called. I read in poetry workshops a few of the poems in his debut collection, and loved them. They are clear-eyed portraits of Dunkirk in upstate New York, a town typical of so many dying industrial towns in the north. The poems have something of Philip Levine in them, a poet Jason loves, but the cast of characters, so memorably evoked, are all Jason's own.

Here's one of his poems, from the Pavement Saw website:

Going Home

Across from the Babe Ruth Field—
where Eddie Zappie pitched three perfect games
and could’ve made it,
if not for booze and Stacy Watson—
I kick the dust in the parking lot
at the old steel mill
where both my grandfathers did time,
watch the sun through broken
windows, the bricks and rust, ten years
since anyone worked here.

Downtown it’s just as quiet,
a few old men on benches and kids
on bikes racing red lights.
All the stores went in ’75,
now there’s a Wal-Mart out by the Thruway.

On Center Street it’s the same fat girl
behind the counter at the convenient store,
the same empty box cars
on the Third Street overpass and at Sara’s Tavern,
the same faces drink the once local draft,
day after day, like the old women
who chant novenas and lust
after the priests at St. Mary’s.

I can hardly imagine what Dunkirk was like
when my mother was young, let alone
in 1851, when the first train arrived with President Fillmore
and Daniel Webster onboard.

There are people here who talk of leaving,
but only go as far as Bruce’s Corner Store,
or the Greek diner at the dock.
Maybe it’s the view of the hills to the south,
or the three smoke stacks
of the electric plant at sunset, that keep us here,
or maybe it’s the sound of my own voice,
reciting the streets named for birds and fish
as if they were the names of saints.

“And now that I’ve left I dream only of returning” says Jason Irwin in Watering the Dead. In this debut--part love song, part elegy to the dying factory towns of America--nothing is lost, nothing forgotten. These poems swivel on bar stools and race trains on back roads. Boy leave small towns for war or prison and fathers talk about “someday” like it’s a day on the calendar. These are poems of honor and witness; they pray and rage. Irwin gives us no easy vision of escape, instead in this powerful first collection he gives us poems of rough beauty.

--Victoria Redel

The poems in Jason Irwin’s debut collection, Watering The Dead, are filled with human experience and emotional complexity. Every line is spare, devoid of ornate, yet posses lucid images that are opulent in their ability to convey truth through the lives of ordinary people. Listen carefully and you will hear a heart beat in every line. you will also discover integrity—a quiet integrity that pervades these poems—a gift the poet shares with you, the reader, again and again.

--Kevin Pilkington


Onyeka Nwelue said...

Nice blog, bro. Would be visiting everyday, so keep on posting.

Anonymous said...

this is an excellent poem . . .

thanks for featuring it.

--Bill Knott

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks, onyeka!

Hi Bill,
glad you like the poem. Buy the book! The poems build on one another, the characters grow on you.

Jee Leong