Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Steel Valley by Michael Adams
By Michael Adams
Lummox Press, 2010
Reviewed by Pam Rosenblatt
Michael Adams’s Steel Valley is a 103 page book filled with poetry, prose, and letters that make you aware that there are worlds outside of Boston, Massachusetts. And Adams’s worlds, or places, are memorable and filled with Adams’s appreciation of man-made as well as nature-made environments.
Adams’s poem “The Soft Fires” brings you quickly into the first of his worlds – his life as a youngster growing up in Steel Valley, south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, amidst the steel industry’s final years. Here you find Adams mixing steel industry imagery with sexual imagery to create metaphor:
The Soft Fires
I stepped into the fires in the cathedral shadows of the furnaces,
in thrall to a life alloyed of iron and flesh.
It was Pittsburgh where I was tested and tempered,
Pittsburgh that entangled within me the chained indifferent fury
of industry and the unquenchable drives of the heart.
Our first time was in her second floor apartment
in South Oakland, where the city tumbles
down the bluff through blown trash
and woodland to the furnaces of Hazelwood.
The house was tumbling too, but slowly,
succumbing to gravity and the landlord’s indifference
to paint, caulk and shingles. We didn’t care, we
were young, newly free, had lightning
on our minds. The maintenance of structures or love
beneath bay windows that had resigned
the battle against wind and rain, leaving
long streaks of rust in the mustard yellow walls,
flecks of plaster on the sheets and a persistent smell of mold.
Ah, but that night –
there was a red glow
in the belly of the clouds from the furnaces, rain
hammered the windows and the October branches
of the sycamore battered the house.
I tasted the wind and rain and the sulphur grit
of the mill as I entered the fires and found her rhythm,
and we rocked together, welded by our hunger.
The storm’s thunder mixed with a deeper sound,
striking through the earth from the mill,
felt more than heard, some great machine
forming and shaping the bones of our city,
a monster hammering
deep in the soil and rock.
The night, our city
riven to the core.
Next, Adams transports you to the second place where he lived – Spruce Mountain, West Virginia in his poem “Spruce Mountain, West Virginia”:
Spruce Mountain, West Virginia
I wanted this earth to speak through me,
to tell you – he tried to make a living
of it. It’s true he failed, but there is no shame
in that. It takes more than a man and a woman,
and a small piece of land, to build something that endures.
You saw the farms scattered on the mountain,
the small towns of the valley –
Onega, Seneca, Circleville, Cherry Grove
They may not look like much but by God
they have staying power. You don’t enter
a place like this lightly. It takes generations
of blood and sweat flowing into the hardscrabble earth,
and not a little darkness.
The soil here is built of disappointment and fractured dreams.
Leave this land alone for a few years
and you may lose everything to its unassailable patience.
This thick woodland was once a meadow,
and the smell was not that of autumn leaves
and spring water, but the pungent odor of cow dung.
Here is where the house stood. You have to get down
on your hands and knees now, a beggar, dig
in the damp earth to find any trace.
Someone must have carted off
the few things I left that were worth anything
before they set the fire. The rest is gone
to rust and the voracious creatures of the soil.
Look, there is the spring where we drew water,
next to it the big oak still stands, the one whose branches
sounded like small animals on the tin roof
when the wind blew in the autumn and the leaves were dry
but not yet fallen.
Right here was the kitchen where we would play
guitar and banjo and drink Jack Daniels straight up
until we were brave enough to venture
into the moonless November dark
to confront the mountain’s
What words are fit to honor these mountains that rose
to heights unseen to this day, rose before
towering fern forests were locked in darkness
and began their ages-long decay
to the black rock we rend and gut this earth to find?
What words for these former Himalayas, softened by eons
of rain and the slow rafting of continents to today’s tree-
I say there is wisdom here, solace, and much of the sacred.
What do our few decades matter?
Someday our remains will be scattered in a place
not unlike this, a place of trees and sky
and rough-hewn land, a part, finally, of it all.
I wanted this earth to speak as it does,
undeniable and unanswerable,
as the leaves, like the generations of men,
fall around us on this autumn day.
A man and woman and the great land.
Here for a season, for few turnings
of the wheel to endure, to love,
to give what we can.
Then Adams moves to Colorado. And he writes a letter called “Wet Mountains Jan 2003” to his deceased father about how he has matured, or “changed so much –”:
Wet Mountains 2003
Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve written. But I
woke up – it’s the middle of the night but my bladder
won’t let me get a full night’s sleep anymore – and I was
thinking about you. It’s been 20 years almost to the day
since you died, and I didn’t even think about that but I
woke up with you on my mind, so I guess it was floating
around in there
It’s 12 below zero and the wind’s blowing pretty good,
but it’s warm in the cabin with a fire going. You’d like
it here. The stars are so close, up here at 9,000 feet. I
think you’d be proud of me, building this cabin with my
own two hands, just like you did our first house back
there on Elizabeth St.
The world’s changed so much – I’ve changed so much –
that I don’t know where to start. First off, I married
and pretty happy — been together over ten years now!
No kids, though. I don’t know why, just one of those
things. I always had something else going on and by the
time I stopped and looked back it was just too late.
I’m glad for nights like this, when I wake up and can’t get
back to sleep. A near-full moon shining on the snow, the
wind in the trees. You’d like this land – a high, rolling
country of sage and pines. You talked often of Colorado,
of how you fell in love with it in your Army days.
You know, it reminds me of Homeville, and of my farm
in West Virginia. You can’t see the high mountains
from here, just rolling tree covered hills and deep
valleys. I think that’s why I chose it. Funny, isn’t it? A
guy moves halfway across the country to get away and
then picks a place that reminds him of home.
Well, dad, that’s about it for now.
Through his free flowing, descriptive and lucid writing style, Adams wins our attention. He writes about three worlds, or places, that are not easily accessible to us Bostonians: the steel mining industry that is basically longer in existence in Pittsburgh; Spruce Mountain which is located in West Virginia and is quite a drive from Massachusetts; and Colorado which is a plane ride or a many days’ drive to get to from Boston.
It’s a pleasure to read Adams’s Steel Valley not only for its quality writing but for the different but similar perspectives on life that Michael Adams depicts.