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ALL THAT REMAINS

BY BRIAN FANELLI

ISBN: 978-1936373468

OCTOBER 2013

UNBOUND CONTENT

all-that-remains-front-cover

Here’s a challenge for all of you poets out there. Get a copy of Brian Fanelli’s All That Remains and try to write like him. At first blush it does not seem an insurmountable challenge. Fanelli’s work is approachable. He does not brandish his technical prowess with intimidating sestinas. There is no pandering to theory, nor does he flaunt his erudition by quoting obscure thinkers or having his characters speak in Latin. (Though there are some well-placed references to Bob Dylan and horror movies.) What we do find are rusting towns and their hard-working denizens, whose horizons are limited through no fault of their own. We also catch moments of tenderness and regret and glimpses of youth with chances seized or lost.

While All that Remains is best consumed end to end, I am going to focus first on a poem that appears in the middle, After Working Hours. The people inhabiting this poem are not poets or artists or academics or urban professionals. The woman works in a grocery store. The man works construction, and the images and sounds of their work day follow them home and further still into their dreams, but they wake to love and consideration as he pours coffee and she touches his hand, “feeling warmth between his calluses and cracked skin.” These are not people with careers. For the couple in this poem, a job has little reward beyond the monetary. The drudgery exacts both a physical and psychological toll, but the simple affection between a man and a woman makes it something that can be borne.

Perhaps the most refreshing attribute of Fanelli’s work, in my opinion, is that he has overcome the temptation to write about oneself. There is always an “I” in his poems, and the “I” is usually the poet (though not always, as in Speaking from a Sick Bed),  but the poet exists not to tell about himself and what he has been through, but to tell the story of the people around him.  Summer at the Press Plant is more about the alcoholic, good-natured horror movie buff Frank, barely holding on, than the poet who is looking back to when he was “19 and home from college.”  How I Remember Her ponders the fate of a female activist who surrenders the barricades because of motherhood and marriage to a man “she loves sometimes, when he’s nice.” While we may be curious about the poet’s true feelings for this woman, who is clearly a friend or more than a friend, the poem is not about unrequited love, but about the forces of life and time that make someone, once passionate and vigorous, quit the battle and surrender. The poet may not approve of his friend’s choice of a mate, but, if there is any judgment, it can barely be discerned.

In fact, there are few judgments rendered in All That Remains. Fanelli opts not to expose the violence, resentment, and ignorance that are often fellow travelers with hopelessness. He is not an ironic writer, not looking to poke fun at or criticize his subjects. His hard-working blue-collar characters are not racists or homophobes, not bullies or reactionaries. In fact, save for a passing reference to “decisions of law makers and kings,”  “some senators and congressmen”  actual villains are hard to come by in All That Remains.  The people in these poems toil in dignity seemingly without residual bitterness, the cause of their fates unmentioned or distant.

I decided to set myself a challenge and write a poem like Brian Fanelli. I tried my best to transcend myself, to write about marriage and fatherhood from the perspective of someone who has a job, but no career (or no job at all), who works with his hands instead of tapping keyboards, who is too exhausted and concerned about how he will pay the heating bill to concern himself with questions metaphysical or mundane. I found it is not easy to capture with wit and humanity lives that are near your own geographically, but further in terms of class or race or gender. Fanelli writes about fates that he himself has escaped, but he is unwilling to turn his back, to say: “I’m out of here. You’re on your own.”

I thought since I had to witness a whole bunch of snotty poets dissect the working class poets (or lack thereof) on a thread today, I’d have some fun and brand them as they brand folks like me.

First this is the general gist of what they inferred. All white working class people have disappeared. We don’t really exist and so must be represented by Philip Levine and James Wright–two men who didn’t spend as much time in the factory as they spent teaching at leading universities. They wrote about working class people. We were interesting back in the day. We had clout because class and fashionable communism (not the real thing, but the kind you embrace when you take a theory class) prevailed. Now all we got is the “white working poor,” and we all know those fuckers just show up in photos of fat asses in the people of Wal-Mart and as extras in movies that prove it was working class whites who lynched all the black folks, and the rich white elites tried really hard (they really, really did) to stop them Yeah, Sure. Right.

If every upper middle class southern novelist’s family had been as “different” as they are in the novels, there never would have been Jim Crow. So myth number one: working class white folks no longer exist and that’s a good thing because they lynched all the colored folks while upper middle class whites sang Joan Baez songs and went on secret life saving missions with their black maids to the poor side of town. Uh huh…. Fucking spare me. Now only poor working whites exist and that’s a bad thing because they’re really stupid, have fat asses, and vote Republican, and we all know what that means: they must be sterilized.

My own branding iron on artsy white folks: the first thing artsy white people check out are your clothes, your weight, and your shoes. The next thing they check out is what program you were in and who you studied with. Then they check out where you were published. If it’s a rainy day, and they’re bored, they may even check out what you actually wrote (to make sure its what they write, only different–different in the same way).

Artsy white folks call themselves foodies then waste 60 percent of the shit on their plate. Al dente is misapplied to everything. Everything is almost raw. This allows them to think they are cooking things the right way and showing off their good teeth, yet not eating much because all the chewing tires them out and reminds them they need to up their anti-depressants. Upper middle class white artsy folks do not like soft foods. They like crunch and bite, and things you have to chew for hours. They like soup, but only if its “comfort food.” Artsy white folks use comfort food, the phrase, the way pool players call a safety when they have no shot: it absolves them from being branded working poor. When I eat macaroni and cheese among artsy white folks I say: “I’ve had it rough lately. Time for some comfort food.” It doesn’t work for me because I’m husky and I never order anything I have to chew for more than four seconds. I also don’t wear the right pants.

Artsy white folks still hang out with people who fucked and dumped them and gave head to their best friend. This allows them to feel bitter indefinitely, and say sarcastic, bitter things while pretending they are mature and above holding a grudge. This also allows them to feel that they have real and important issues. Artsy white folks “grow apart.” They “move forward.” They “let go.” For some reason they use some of the same terms in romances as they do in business meetings.

Artsy white folks all try to look like William Hurt or the older Jessica Lange if they are over forty. If they are in their thirties, they all try to look a little like a cross between Natalie Portman and Kathleen Keener. If they are really artsy, they all look like Katherine Hepburn playing Joan of Arc in 400 dollar jeans (both the men and the women). There is always someone who looks like Catherine Keener among their friends, and this person is always mean and funny. Artsy white folks keep a rich supply of mean and funny people around them at all times. These used to be their gay or bi friends, but then they realized this was stereotyping, so now all their gay friends are happily married men or women who wear expensive Irish sweaters and really “grock them.” Mark Doty is always on their book shelves. Artsy white folks know enough not to listen to Pachelbel (though they have hidden him somewhere in the house with the one pack of cigs, and the can of beefaroni). They listen to Philip Glass instead, and, sometimes, even John Zorn. They go to Lyle Lovett concerts even if they never listen to country music. They want the whole country to be Brooklyn, Portland, or Austin, Texas. All artsy white folks eventually live in one of those three places. If they can’t, they live in Jersey City or in Nashville.

All artsy white folks can get really conflicted when the cashier says: Plastic or paper? They have different strategies for dealing with it. Some get haughty and say:”you must be joking,” And then hope the cashier gives them plastic. Others say paper and don’t really mean it. Still others look around quickly, say plastic and live with their decision. If they ever shop at Wal-Mart, they wear a disguise, do it in the dead of night, and make amends the next day by walking in the breast cancer or gay pride parade. They are all green conscious people who lived in the suburbs which destroyed the woods and created the fossil fuel emissions problem. Now, because they said oops and want to solve it, they all think they dance with wolves.They moved back to the cities because they realized the suburbs were a cultural desert and unsustainable. You’ll know when artsy white folks are moving back to your urban neighborhood because both the rents and the police presence goes up and everything starts to resemble a slightly cooler version of White Plains, New York.

Artsy white people might even be amused by this post if they feel superior to me (they do, and I agree with them) They know they are the exception. Artsy white people are always the exception. They hate cops and lawyers and the industrial military complex though they are usually involved in some form of litigation and feel “violated” when someone steals from them, and they do nothing to stop the poor from fighting wars for them. They love equating getting ripped off with being violated. They hate cops even though they are likely to call them first, and they deplore racial profiling, yet count any art house immediately to make sure there is enough of a sprinkling of Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and cool white people to be worthy of their presence. They are always lauding people of color yet somehow manage to end up with each other–deploring those unenlightened working class whites and Republicans who give whites a bad name. Along with corporate Republicans, they rule the world, but feel really, really bad about it…you understand? After all some day we will all be living in Agamben’s post-identity community and none of this will matter. An artsy white person who likes you can always be trusted to take you to the “real Mexican restaurant.” That’s one of the things I like about them. Artsy white people are all knowing, and always know the real Mexican restaurant. They always know what’s real. After all, they invented it.

The other night I was sitting in this old decrepit rocker. It belonged to my grandfather, Thomas Joseph Brennan, and it was never distinguished–even new. It was a rocker/ recliner, with a little wooden lever that would allow you to lie back, almost as if on a bed. It was the sort of chair working class people purchased on the way up along with the upright spinet to prove they were no longer poor. It goes with doilies. It goes with old black and white TV commercials speaking about the joys of a mild smoke. It still bears a ring here or there where my grandfather forsook the coaster under his beer.

I never met my grandfather. He died in 1954, four years before I was born. He died of a kidney disease brought on by over 30 years in the Standard Oil gas works. I was told by my mother he was artistic. He built his own coy pond, read poetry aloud to his children, and insisted on hot soup and the rosary everyday of his life. I have a picture of him in my living room, and he brandishes an amused half smile–a triumphant look. Well he should. He went into the gas works at age 9, and most of his family had died by the time he was 18. The man earned his rocker/recliner. Somehow, I ended up with it. When I was little, I would recite poems to his photo. He always seemed pleased.

So I sat there at the end of the day with a copy of Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass. Like the rocker/recliner, this edition had gold leaf to prove to a working man that he was no longer poor. Outside the window, a chickadee gave forth with its sad song which I have always interpreted as: “I’m sorry… Please forgive me.” A cardinal said “Pew. pew, pew!” and, considering his beauty, he had every right to feel arrogant. The room was just dark enough to call for a soft light. I read this great poem, which I have read over a hundred times, and perhaps, because I had three broken ribs, a kidney stone, a cyst on my ass the size of Topeka, and had downed a pain killer, I wept. I didn’t just cry judicious, moist at the border of my eyes tears; I cried in big heaving sobs, with tears fat enough to pass for minnows, and I fell out of the rocker onto my knees.

“OH drooping star in the west.” This is the line that got me. If you know the poem, you’ll know Whitman does what the great filmmaker John Ford suggested: have three good scenes and no bad ones. Whitman has three central emblems (Images): The mocking bird, the sprig of Lilac, and the drooping star in the west. From these three, he weaves one of the greatest poems ever written, certainly one of the greatest public elegies (for Lincoln). Think of it in MFA terms. It takes guts just to put stars in a poem, but to have a drooping star? Only the best readers, only readers who have looked closely at Lilacs, would know their clusters are comprised of hundreds of little flowers that are shaped somewhat like stars. Whitman had made a bridge between the pathetic sprig of Lilac he had picked in the poem to offer to Lincoln’s funeral procession, and the one star in the western sky–the Illinois to which his beloved Lincoln was heading. He had united microcosm to macrocosm, and in such a true and unapologetic manner that it made all the workshop comments, and general business of poetic craft beside the point. If I had been conducting a workshop and some smart student had piped up and said: “this image does not make sense,” I would have hit her or him, and kicked them until they had three broken ribs, and said “Shame on you! A poet has just made a bridge between the lilac sprig he holds in his hand and the star in the west, and of course it is drooping because it is about to descend below the horizon, and the beloved is dead: and shut the fuck up!”

The truly great poems move beyond talent and craft and intelligence, and yes, I still believe in greatness–maybe just to piss off knee jerk post-modernists. Such poems go where we are too ashamed and too tasteful to travel. Vulnerable, fifty three, hurting, drugged, I felt I had encountered this poem for the first time. I started to cough, which is not good when you have three broken ribs. My wife came into the room to see if I was OK. I had my Aunt Mary’s afghan wrapped around me. I told my wife: “Emily, I am being an idiot. I was reading a poem by Whitman and had a moment. Don’t worry. Go back to your office and write a poem.”

When I had recovered myself, and re-assumed the chair, I finished this poem. Then I went outside to look at the huge Silver Maple which had lost two major limbs this winter. I looked at the Lilac bush in my yard which, at this time of year, is as ugly as a bald bird. I wished I could have seen a star, but this is Binghamton, and cloud cover is the rule. I felt my ribs move. So be it. I went back into the room and sat down with the afghan over me, and looked at the picture of my grandfather who had died four years before I was born. I thought: “you must have been a good and strange man. You built a coy pond and didn’t get mad at the little children in the neighborhood who would try to fish there when they thought no one was looking. You raised ten children, and you had hot soup every day of your life. My mother said you were artistic, and you painted Christmas scenes on the windows of your house every year by hand. You watched six men gunned down by goons in a strike at Standard Oil. You watched your whole family die. You had a fourth grade education and taught yourself how to read poetry, and you wrote a letter back to Ireland for every immigrant who died and who could not read. I wish I could have known you. I wish I was half the person you were.” And I thought, of all the people on earth, my grandfather would have understood why I fell off that chair and wept. And he would have had a beer with me, and recited a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, the way he recited to my mother when she was a little girl, the way she recited to me. Perhaps we would have wept together–and not out of mere sorrow, but because something in the world is triumphant before us and beyond us, and in spite of us, and it will heal–even if we never do.