Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #9, Winter 2002-3]


Factory Stiff
By William Hart
Pitchfork Press, 2002

Journeyman's Dues
By William Hart
Musclehead Press, 2002

Reviewed by Elizabeth Routen


Chapbooks have always been an ubiquitous, if less than solidly prestigious, part of the publishing landscape. They are mavericks who pursue no particular audience, knowing that their readers are themselves adventurers hunting the uncommon, and often as pleased by the process as by the results. Chapbooks do not profess perfection or even aspire to a particular clarity of purpose. Often the beneficiaries of less than immaculate editing and design, they do not seek criticism, and the author who does it for them is a rarity. They are instead content to provoke questions and accusations answered, if at all, with blithe coquettishness. Undaunted, copy machines have produced entire libraries of these tiny works in progress, and those who hold for the spit and polish of commercial presses will never know the pleasures of exploring the new and sometimes phantastical worlds in which they indulge.

William Hart's two new poetry chapbooks, Journeyman's Dues and Factory Stiff, are no exceptions. Their modest pages invite the embroidery of imagination, and Mr. Hart's outstanding verse forms excellent frames on which to begin. The author says that these two chaps are explorations of his many blue collar jobs. Given his status as a doctor of English, one would expect them to brim with ruminations on discontent amplified by the sheer boredom of a work-a-day life. But Mr. Hart is not interested in anacreontics or in forming a concrete universal of his angst. These are not his stories. Ever a watcher, he moves a scene with an apt description of a long-conquered fear or shattered illusion and then deftly clears the stage for his players. His tone is almost omniscient in scope, but his poems do not venture out of their self-defined boundaries -- the space between hope and duty.

Mr. Hart's narrators work in a Cessna factory and in a slaughterhouse, as a welder and as a postman. After the stultifying work day, his characters indulge in dreams of love and family, in cheerful and quasi-adolescent weekend passions. Gary of "An American Dream" wants
to find a charmed
transmission for his rod
and screech to victory
at the local drag strip

As their desideratums are both physical and intellectual, so are their sufferings. They struggle through the graveyard shift, accepting with bold indifference "a body shocked beyond repair" by the difficult hours. They are burned and broken, left by wives and mentors, and always, always wracked by the need to move.

Mr. Hart's poetry is terse, his images precise and journalistic. He does not play with simple people and does not editorialize or romanticize their affairs. Instead, it is in the stories that he chooses to tell and in his delineation of relative importance that we learn of his whispered and self-effacing compassion. At times, he seems uncomfortable with his task, laying down tales that are too close to him to be treated with dexterous efficiency. He forges ahead quickly, before their voices have a chance to chastise him from beneath his pen. It is this element of time, specifically the healthy though incomplete separation of past from future, that removes him from his characters. For they exist in the moment.

Mr. Hart's poems contain an elegiac sensibility that is wondering and transient. He does not belong among these people or within these rooms. He scrutinizes them from a distance, wavering between admiration and disgust.
Their problem was
they were bright enough to fathom
the secret beyond the black
dangling rubber strips
through which pig generations
brimming with the prime of life
had marched before them.


...behind the beady eyes of pigs
lie no illusions like
"soul," "sympathy," "moral precept."
This allows the porcine kind
to penetrate the mystery
of the human heart
whose main compulsion
and imperative is not
the golden rule
but to follow orders.

"Mansion of Dead Animals" is Mr. Hart's poetry at its finest, and its most disturbing. He desires such people. He desires to let them go.

Some of Mr. Hart's most convincing portraits are of persons like himself caught in a world in which they do not belong. In "Biker" he writes of a half-hearted black sheep from an upper-class family struck down mid-rebellion by a Mercedes. But it is in "Standing K.O." that we find the quiet heart of the work. Mr. Hart's characters are both emboldened and bewildered by their strengths; yet in an automated factory, neither brains nor brawn is required. Excess energy congeals into anger. The workers are uneasy, lacking a star on which to fix their compass. "Better to dream on/ dawn to dusk," he writes, "eyes downcast/ but blazing with longing." Better than what? Than watching the slow twitch of the clock, the core of their lives, as it burns down the flames of necessity and desire.

There is nothing strictly beautiful or stirring in his words. They are simple, fitting choices with which he clothes his characters in a dignity appropriate to their stoicism and inflammability. To have chosen words for charm or design would have been a betrayal. Journeyman's Dues and Factory Stiff are recommended to anyone who seeks to see more clearly the lives with which we are surrounded -- even, perhaps, our own.

Factory Stiff is available for $2 ppd. from
Pitchfork Press
2002A Guadalupe #461
Austin, TX 78705

Journeyman's Dues is available for $3 ppd. from
Musclehead Press
3700 County Route 24
Russell, NY 13684

______________________________

Elizabeth Routen is the author of the recently released short story collection Voices on the Stair. Her writing has appeared or is soon to appear in publications including Artemis, Story Digest, and Vincent Brothers Review. You can visit her online at http://routen.windriverpress.com.



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