Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Jason Irwin's "Watering the Dead"

I read some of these poems in Jason's chapbook Some Days It's a Love Story; in this full-length collection, which won Pavement Saw's Transcontinental Poetry Award, the poems reappear with even greater force, partly due to the larger narrative of which they now form a part. Watering the Dead accumulates power in its depiction of the stunted lives and thwarted dreams of small-town, blue-collared America, specifically, Dunkirk in upstate New York, a town which was, as one angry poem puts it, built and then abandoned by the railroad industry. 

Novelistic in its close observation of people and places, but unmistakably poetic in its arrangement of symbolic details, and its canny handling of the linebreak, the book has as its chief virtue a deep empathy for people who are suffering and cause suffering to others. The sufferers are family: divorced parents (the father is seen with more painful irony than the mother), a grandma with cancer, a grandpa who lost his house, uncles who wasted their lives in factory work. They are also friends and school-mates whom one gets to know, and not know, in a small town, to a peculiar extent. They kill themselves by driving to beat the train. They drink themselves to death in bars. They get locked-up. 

But there is nothing generic about them; the poems' glory is to bring them all to life: Joe Larivy who picked his nose through Spelling; Priscilla Kapiniski who showed her privates behind the rabbit cage; Joe Rancka who shared his Puerto Rican Rum; Todd Dopler who drove with the author on crazy road trips, and died in a high speed chase, in a stolen car; Frankie Lugo, the dutiful son, who was jailed for child molestation; Ed who finally got out in a rented truck; Walt Poland who stayed, and spat Morse Code onto the bar top; and Eric who thought we are all nothing but dirt, anyway.

To evade a constricted life, everyone dreams. The grown-ups dream of Cadillacs, the children dream of becoming Rocky Bilboa. An expansive future, that can only be found if one leaves home, is figured as "the most beautiful woman in the world." Those who don't leave home lust for consolation in glimpses of female breasts and ass. There are love poems in this book, but the creative impulse here is not lyrical, but elegaic and documentary. 

The impulse is also religious, and it issues in a desire to sanctify the place, and one's memories of the place, for the author does leave home. Spared from ordinary responsibilities and expectations by a childhood illness, the author is freed to write, but is compelled to write about what he has left behind. The last poem of the book is also one of its most powerful. In "Going Home," the speaker returns physically to Dunkirk. The poem moves from the Babe Ruth Field to the steel mill at which his grandfathers did time. Then it moves to the deserted downtown, into the convenient store where the same fat girl serves, then into Sara's Tavern where "the same faces drink the once local draft." Then it moves back in time to a year the speaker can hardly imagine, so promising it seems: 1851, when the first train arrived in Dunkirk with President Filmore and Daniel Webster onboard. The excitement was passing.

The poem sums it up this way, making the specific special, and the habitat holy:

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 its' 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.


You can buy the book from Pavement Saw

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