Monday, February 11, 2008
Manufacturing America: Poems From the Factory Floor by Lisa Beatman
Poems from the Factory Floor
by Lisa Beatman
Ibbetson Press, Somerville, MA
61 pages, $14.95
Review by Lo Galluccio
"We are not wholly bad or good, who live our lives under Milk Wood"
Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood
“Hands are tongues on the graveyard shift or are they wings?”
Lisa Beatmen, Manufacturing America
It’s not so much that Lisa Beatman’s soon-to-be American citizens laboring for factory wages and learning English in Manufacturing America, resemble those of Thomas’ small town in Wales; it’s just that I can hear the same kind of radio play rise from the vividly acute portraits of this book. While Thomas was despairing, ironic and a dreadful alcoholic from that lyrically poetic and estranged country, Beatman and her characters are for the most part, strong, cool and sober, give or take the indulgence of a Krispy Kreme donut. They are, however, more eccentric and varied in their struggle for survival. And that includes one industriously dreamy mouse who appears three times in the book, as a kind of shadow play from the very bottom rung. All creatures, afterall, must find their niche and scrap their way through the factory floors that once kept America in full industrial tilt. What’s amazing is the way Beatman captures the language and expressive nature of their day-to-day grind, each detail lacquered on to a beautiful mosaic of faces and voices and souls. Though their jobs may be outsourced, we are left with a sense of tenacity and high spirit from this community.
In the poem “Rainbow” Lisa presents Juan from Santiago, Chile in the beginning and beams him onto the paper factory-- from casting his net on a Rainbow Lake to another man, in another kind of state::
“Juan is mute as a lake, but he knows
his colors: purple is A-F
blue is G-K, yellow is L-P,
red is Q-T, green is U-Z.
His calloused hands, tattooed with paper cuts
sort the folders that will hold each child’s story.”
While Beatman may not be wholly optimistic about the conditions of the Factory Floor, she doesn’t cast her subjects as Marxist victims, bur rather as mostly their own inventions -- as efficiently creating what others will use. They are worker bees, but they can sting and bob and wear sexy clothes too.
In “Citizen Delia” Beatman writes about a Latina woman who determines to present her own image of womanhood in order to gain her citizenship:
“Delia is getting citizened up.
A samba-hipped woman
who wants to be a hyphenated-American.
She glues perma-clips on folders.
One by one. And grabs lunch on her feet.
Except for Tuesdays.
Pizza and Citizenship day.
Delia doesn’t like pizza
but what can you do?
Delia has another idea.
She already put her clothes on the bed.
A red blouse down to here.
A black mini-skirt, short-short.
The new push-up bra.
In the store Manuela the baby
said Mami your boobs are growing.
She hopes the immigration officer is a man.”
(While never faced with a citizenship wardrobe test, I can remember what it was like to go before a ladies man judge in NYC Housing Court four times in one year. A pretty skirt and well made up face never hurt my cause as a struggling apartment renter on the Lower East Side.)
In the second part of the book, labeled, “Second Shift” our mouse makes his second appearance. In a jolting metaphysical moment filled with “snakes of smoke” and “the tiny atom…yoked and whipped and branded,” our furry friend is found in a state of bewildered fear:
“Mouse sniffs all around.
This new trail of gauzy heat –
What lies at the other end?
Will it, charmed, wind lazily upwards
To weave into the grey pall overhead
Or snap its tail, rattling
The timbers and bricks down?
Mouse waits in a corner, trembling.”
And we hone in on a meaner side to this exhibit of workers and their dilemmas.
I In “Coffee Break,” “Scrap” and “Hack Job” the more brutal realities of factory life come to the fore.
one machine operator
on the dole,
shopping with food stamps
hack, hack, hack,
three departments decapitated.
How will the body live
with no framework
to hang its flesh on?”
And so, we come back to the perennial American question, brought to us in part by a 12-step program mandating those “stay positive” mantras. You know the question. “Is the glass half empty or half full?” What’s the better way, the survivalist way, to look at it?
In “Parking,” Lisa poses the same question from a backdrop of how a parking lot can determine who punches in on time and whose used car gets protected.
“Maria sat in the cafeteria
next to an empty chair.
She’d finally got a spot
where her “67 Chevy wouldn’t cook.”
The foreman is talking to Abner
whose brother is home with the want ads.
We only need happy people here.
How do you see it my friend –
is the parking lot half empty
or half full?
Well, if I had a quibble with this brilliant pink (pink like fingernail polish, pink like a rose tombstone, pink like Asian kitsch) expose of a paper plant and its workers it would be the lengthy addendum, “Firng Uncle Hillel” which seems to me a bit out of place, as a long prose piece in the collection. A minor point. Lisa well makes up for this lapse in her finale, “Copyright.”
“Like a page on fire,
elbows cocked into question marks,
Leyla Chang invades my dream
strips the white sheet
from my body
plucks the pen from
my twitching fingers
What’s this she says
About you writing my life?
Since when did I
Become a page number
In your table of contents?
Since when did I volunteer
to furnish your castle
who died and gave you
the right to copy me?
Many near perfect poems, an arc that sustains, and a subject that deserves much light, levity and attention paid to it. This book is a winner. As the daughter of an Italian immigrant who would have died to play baseball with the Red Sox and became a Labor Lawyer instead, I can fully appreciate Lisa Beatman’s grasp of these tough, savvy and wonderful people.
Doug Holder’s Ibbetson St. Press evolves yearly into an ever more fascinating literary enterprise.
NB: Lisa Beatman is now managing adult literacy programs at the Harriet Tubman House in Boston. She won Honorable Mention for the 2004 Miriam Lindberg International Poetry Peace Prize, and was awarded a Massachusettts Cultural Council Grant, as well as a fellowship to Sacatar Institute in Brazil. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author of “Hot Rain,” a poetry chap
on Singing Bone Press & two solo CDs,
“Being Visited” and “Spell on You.”