Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Steel Valley by Michael Adams

Steel Valley
By Michael Adams
Lummox Press, 2010
103 pages
$15.00 USA

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
unhouseled ghosts.

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-
green hills?

            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 gone.

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

Dear Dad,

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.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Time Being: An Improvisation by Joe Torra

Time Being: An Improvisation by Joe Torra (Quale Press, 2012.  $16)

Review by Doug Holder

  The banal lives astride the profound. Life lives astride death. The comic dwells amidst the tragic. Joe Torra in his long poem/journal/improvisation titled Time Being takes it all in, in this stream of consciousness work that takes place in Somerville and the surrounding environs between Dec 2006 to Dec. 2007.

 Anyone from Somerville, Mass. will recognize Torra’s references: Highland Ave, the defunct Grand Café in Union Square (Where I observed Torra hold court at a poetry group held there on weekends,) the dour day laborers waiting for a gig at Foss Park, the looming tower of the Schraff’s Building, “The Goth chick unlocking the porn store,” the long gone eatery Virgies that Torra describes as a:

 “ … neighborhood joint catering to postal workers, and local tradesman bad bar food, pool table darts and Keno—after its facelift it’s Madison’s on the Ave., no more Bud signs…”

 Like the late poet William Carlos Williams who Torra makes reference to in this passage: “Williams was right when he wrote that it’s the hours we keep to see things make all the difference,” he sees it all and with clarity.

 And Torra observes, makes pasta, sees more, comes back to the meal, and generously mixes his musings about death, Chinese poetry, and dental bills in this eclectic recipe.

 Throughout the book an image of a deceased neighbor who used to live on his block emerges. They saw each other in passing for years but never even exchanged a “hello.” This spectral elderly woman appears rudely in the midst of Torra’s horn of plenty of a life: the noisy clatter of his kids, the creaking and the disrepair of his old house, the notes from his students, the phone calls of his friends, and his conversations with his wife. She is a constant reminder to stop, smell, touch, feel, to experience the here and now.

 And this is how it is, isn’t it?  You can be looking out the window of your car thinking about your visit to the therapist, or the grocery list, or the root canal you have to get, and then the memories flood in. In this passage Torra dwells on the swan song of his father as the author drives by a hospital in his car: “I will always call it Spaulding Rehabilitation my father’s dead eyes look up before the doctor closes them and pulls the sheet over…” And then just as quickly he focuses on: “…down the tunnel and three men in a white pickup truck fuck you out the window they think I cut them off…”

  Torra, with minutely crafted attention to detail, creates a master work, that any man or woman can point to and think: “Hey, I thought that, I felt that, I mourned, I loved… like him.”

Highly Recommended.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Surrender When Leaving Coach By Joel Lewis

Surrender When Leaving Coach

By Joel Lewis

Hanging Loose Press

Brooklyn, New York

ISBN: 978-1-934909-26-3

124 Pages


Review by Dennis Daly

Some poets sing. Some paint images. Some invoke spiritual or philosophical vibrations to carry the mood. Joel Lewis does none of these arty things. Yet Lewis somehow makes poetry happen. His poems emerge from a background of dissonance and human density, like quartz or obsidian out of craggy rock. Lewis creates his context of noise from mass transit vehicles: bus, train, shuttle, and ferry. The noise of these vehicles includes conversation snippets of passengers, storefront sights, quotes from books, jokes, famous and anonymous people, and much more.  What rises to the level of poetry will often depend on the reader and his or her sensitivities. In his poem, Walking Main Street, Hackensack Lewis recalls 1988,

… buses idling against the Transfer Station platform.

A thick goodbye to old Hackensack Saturdays

with farmers swarming off up-country’s

Susquehanna trains—those Wortendyke Dutch

and moody Paramus celery ranchers have left their progeny

a vast Mall to inhabit…

Twenty years later the poet returns by bus and finds most stores of his youth are gone, but his favorite hamburger joint still there, offering some stability in his fast moving universe,

“Is Prozy’s Army and navy open?”


What about Womrath’s Books?”

“Gone for years.”

“How about White Manna?”

“Some people say Hackensack

should shut down if

‘ the Manna’ closes.”

Well ‘the Manna’ is not closed and Lewis enjoys his comforting potato flour hamburger rolls and the oniony meat before getting back on the bus. Lewis’ vehicles not only transport his reader across town, but also across time. 

The poem, Mass Transit Journal: January, is one of four monthly journal poems in which the poet delivers more context and the poetry of everyday belching black soot grittiness. He records,

1/18, 8:00am, on the S46 (towards West New Brighton)

bus slogs up to the Victory Boulevard stop

meat pies of all nations in a still-gated store window

columns of industrial rain on a Van Duzer Street awning

my butchered hesitations, my inhibited fantasies of power

as the bus climbs uphill

I look back

see oil tankers parked in the Narrows…

The poet counts his blessings while watching his wife as she eats crème brulee at a French brasserie, which is, of course, located inside the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He comments on the scene,

—a scenario I’d have found

hard to imagine in the late ‘70s,

either marriage or a bistro

in that scary homeless dormitory

where I’d catch the bus back

to my basement warren

in North Bergen

after another evening

of poetry readings…

Like most poets and other people Lewis has had bad times that have made an impression on him, and in his case, he cannot believe his present good luck. (After writing this I would recommend knocking on wood).

In his title poem, Surrender When Leaving Coach, Lewis quotes Barrett Watten:” A bus ride is better than most art.” He then goes on to test this principle in the poem itself, self-consciously dropping names as he writes,

Once again my obsession with

the motion of buses, trains and canal boats

and Paterson has it all


a heavy-duty waterfall

elegantly framed in the five-volume Paterson

of William Carlos William

and it’s where I once took Bill Berkson,

Robert Creeley (I have the photo)…

Not to be missed in this poem is the “Zen bus driver,” who I believe I’ve met in a different context. The poem ends with a lovely stanza, a jewel which seems to me to burst through the density of static. The poet describes the scene thusly,

Grey crescent moon above Port Newark’s cranes:

that distant space that stretches out

beyond the grasp, at-history haze

of retreating winter light

along the Jersey horizon.

The poet identifies himself as a true nerd in the poem, The Origins of My Social Marginalization. He corrects “Fun Fact #226” on the underbelly of a flavored tea bottle cap and is rewarded with a case of Snapple from the Schweppes-Cadbury Corporation. That’s funny. But funnier still is the poet’s recitation of the history of Spaghetti-o’s in his poem entitled Spaghetti-o’s. Here is a bit of literature to remember:

Because salesmen had trouble

pronouncing the family name

it changed to the now familiar phonetics

of Chef Boyardee line

of prepared dinners.

Everyone is proud

of his own family name,”

said Chef Hector,

“but sacrifices were necessary

for progress.”

August Yale Professor Harold Bloom makes a cameo appearance noting his adoration of the New York Yankees in the poem, How Harold Bloom Chills Out. But Lewis tops this comedic scene in the poem, Daydream Nation,

Phil Rizzuto, upon hearing of the death of Pope Paul VI:

“Well, that kind of puts a damper on even a Yankee win!”

Lewis’ delivers quite a few one-liners and uses famous names for effect. A dying Babe Ruth says to Connie Mack: “The termites got me!”  And in the poem, The Academy of an American Poet, there is a very unflattering but human picture of Robert Frost in which Lewis makes a point on hero worship and writers’ communities.

I was slow to warm to these poems, but when I did, especially with Lewis’ sense of humor, they grabbed me.