Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Review of Manufacturing America: Poems from the Factory Floor by Lisa Beatman Review by: Pamela Annas

Review of Manufacturing America: Poems from the Factory Floor by Lisa Beatman
( Ibbetson Street Press-2008) $15.

Review by Pamela Annas

For the American working class, immigrant and native-born alike, factory America is fading like an old sepia photograph. Since the late 1980s, plants have been closing and factory jobs migrating to countries where workers struggle to feed their families on less than a dollar a day. Meanwhile, such workers and their families, trying to find a more economically secure situation, immigrate-- as those in search of a better life often have--to the U.S.A. The tide carries the workers in and the manufacturing jobs out. This is the reserve army of labor. This is globalism from a working-class perspective.

In Manufacturing America: Poems from the Factory Floor, Lisa Beatman offers vivid and individual portraits of workers whom she came to know while teaching basic language skills in a paper and printing company: women and men from El Salvador, Haiti, Brazil, Uganda, Cambodia, Russia, Albania, Somalia, Mexico, the Azores, Vietnam, Portugal.

Lisa Beatman’s collection contributes to a growing number of poems about working-class work and workers by poets such as Deborah Boe, Jim Daniels, Philip Levine, Gwen Houser, Todd Jailer (who also has a series of portraits of individual workers), Susan Eisenberg and others. Here are a few: “Citizen Delia” is “a samba-hipped woman/ who wants to be a hyphenated-American.” Chitra, in “Hand Operator,” applies her bookkeeping skills/ to her new job, creasing each folder/with mathematical precision,” while in “Rainbow”:

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

I was particularly taken with the Latin rhythm and the persona of Nina in “First Shift,” who puts her face/ back on at 5:00 am . . . then stumbles out/ of her dancing heels”

onto the factory floor
She goes to her post
and holds out her hands
Fresh-glued folders fly off
the conveyor belt
Catch, inspect, stack and pack
Catch, inspect, stack and pack
Her face dips and sways
She hums under her breath
the machine flirts back
Cha cha cha cha cha
Manufacturing America takes us through the collective workday. In “Santa Benigna del Carmen de la Cubeta”

Saint Beni of the bucket
starts at six
her hair a twisted black rag
her arms round as roasts
her feet chucks of wood.

She swabs the chief’s toilet
till it gleams like a tooth

on into the dead of night in “Third Shift”, where

Atman, Martir, Fatima, Areik
the souls who work
the graveyard shift
bind books they cannot read
with fluent hands.

Lisa Beatman’s images are strong and accessible, with turns which are sometimes quite startling. In “Hack Job,” she images downsizing as a kind of cannibalistic butcher shop decapitating departments, cracking the bones of the body one by one. Or takes us from the factory into the service sector in what may well be the only poem extant on working at a Krispy Kreme donut shop; here the customers, the donuts, the boss, and the day are rising like yeast

and Julio was meant to sweep and polish and lunch
on fried dough rejects and send half his pay,
little as it was, home to Rosario and Mama.

The question arises of how we are supposed to see these immigrant workers. Certainly they are not threatening. And, though struggling, they are mostly not presented as victims but as solid and vital persons, each with a rich cultural background. They come without many possessions but vivid memories—their homeland as a hard rusk of bread, as a house near the Mekong River made of bamboo, as a rainbow lake where red breast tilapia swim into the net.

In addition to the montage of lively human voices and characters, scampering and creeping through Manufacturing America is a cluster of poems inhabited by mice. The first of these, the prologue to the whole collection, is “New World”, where a “raggedy” mouse jumps ship into a dark shivery world “where gaslights bared the bones

of looms pumping night and day
but there was food aplenty
dropped by the shadow figures
at their brief suppers,
crusts scented with the tall grass
of fields he’d almost put out of mind,
red rinds, sticky with Gouda,
and the new taste—
rich broth of knackered horses
boiled down into an irresistible paste.

and where, importantly, there was no ship’s cat. In the second of these poems, “Crumbs,” “mouse punches in./ He knows the building by heart” and makes his living on croissant crumbs from the bosses, salted rice from the Vietnamese temps, melba toast from the secretaries, tuna subs from the graveyard foreman. The third poem, “Serpent,” is an ominous history of smoke and fire in industrial plants. In the final poem in the collection, “Nursery,” the mouse is female and has moved outside the factory into the brush.

She rations out the hoarded seed
and fills her babes with tales
of monster mouse-holes, dust-mountains
and near-death encounters:
the spray, the traps, the kicking foot,
highways of heating ducts,
and, night and day,
the pounding concerto
of compressors and clanking belts.

Clearly, the mice are a metaphor, and a rather charming one, for the many generations of immigrants to the U.S.A. They allow Beatman to provide an outline of the history of immigration and manufacturing in this country, its rise and fall. Together these four poems add an extra dimension, a meta discourse, to the individual portraits of contemporary workers which form most of Manufacturing America. Finally, as a parent I couldn’t fail to be reminded as I read these poems of the famous literary mouse from Margaret Wise Brown’s classic picture book, Goodnight, Moon, and the game children love to play of finding the tiny mouse tucked away in each color plate, which tends to add an edgy texture to a deliberately placid bedtime story. Ironically, the mouse babes in “Nursery” are shivering to surreal tales of giants. Beatman’s immigrant mice are small unobtrusive survivors, enjoying the tastes of their new world, existing in the interstices of the system, trying to ride with the changes and survive.

One last point: I was glad to see the poet take up the ethics of writing about human subjects in her last poem, “Copyright.” One of her strong voiced women, Leyla Chang, invades the poet’s dream “like a page on fire” to ask: “What’s this she says/ about you writing my life?” It’s a question that always needs to be asked.

Lisa Beatman’s Manufacturing America: Poems from the Factory Floor is highly recommended. *

--Pamela Annas

*Pamela Annas teaches courses in Working-Class Literature, Modern and Contemporary Poetry, and Personal Narrative and is an Associate Dean at the University of Massachusetts/ Boston. She is a member of the editorial collective of The Radical Teacher journal, author of numerous articles and the book A Disturbance in Mirrors: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, as well as co-editor of two textbook/ anthologies: Literature and Society and Against the Current. She has poems forthcoming in Northwoods Anthology and Ibbetson Street Journal.

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