Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Personal Invitation from Phillip Bannowsky

Dear friends in arts, factories, and politics,

About twenty-five years ago, when I was a rank-and-file activist in the UAW and humping the assembly line at Chrysler, I discovered a rare young poet, Jim Daniels, who seemed to understand the dreams and difficulties of us autoworkers. Now he is coming to Delaware, and I hope all my friends and union brothers and sisters will come out to see him when he reads at 5 p.m. October 11th at UD’s Gore Hall in Room 116. Also, he will be joining my old friend and long serving former Delaware Poet Laureate, e. jean lanyon at the 30th Anniversary Celebration of 2nd Saturday Poets, 5 p.m., October 13th, at the Jackson Inn, 101 N. DuPont Road in Wilmington. Both events are open to the public. UD is free; 2nd Saturday requests a $5 donation, and the Jackson Inn, as a tavern, serves only over 21.

Jim Damiels
Daniels seemed to be living my dream. While I dropped out of UD in 1965 and hired on at Chrysler in 69, Daniels escaped early on from Ford to work at Carnegie Mellon University, where he has taught creative writing since 1981. Now he has written, edited, and produced over thirty works of poetry, fiction, and film, and he has won numerous awards. By the way, he wrote a generous blurb for the back cover of my Autoplant: a Poetic Monologue. He has read in countless union halls, universities, libraries, bars, and bookstores since 1978. One of his poems, “Factory Love,” from Places/Everyone, is decaled on the roof of race car driver Alex Gabau’s sports car: “Machine, I come to you 800 times a day/like a crazy monkey lover.”

I stayed at Chrysler, (except for 1992-95 on leave to teach in Ecuador) until I retired in 2001, and now I teach at the University of Delaware. I am proud to say I have had a role in bringing my old favorite to Newark and Wilmington. A big thanks is due for funding to UD’s English Department, the Faculty Senate, and the Delaware Humanities Forum. But it is not only pride that a feel, but a sort of vindication.

You see, my present employer, the University of Delaware, purchased the Chrysler Newark Assembly Plant (N.A.P.) site to use for its new Science, Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) Campus and for Bloom Energy. Ironically, UD had featured prominently in my Autoplant as the dream “gymnasium” from which I wandered in the late 60s across South College Avenue to Chrysler’s assembly line.

What had been hometown to so many Chrysler workers is now history. Now, history can either be a corpse treated to an academic post mortem or a living memory recounted in the poet’s imagination. Chrysler N.A.P wasn’t just so much private property; it was the site of our human drama and the embodiment of our creativity and sweat.

Photo by Harry Rohrer: Chrysler N.A.P Body-In-White
That’s how worklife appears in Jim Daniel’s poetic world: human and sweaty. Sometimes it highlights the inherent dignity in a bottom job. In “Short-order Cook,” for example, from Places/Everyone, when the narrator gets an order for “thirty cheeseburgers and thirty fries,” he deftly if frantically crowds thirty patties onto the grill, flips them, ads the cheese, builds them on buns, cooks two buckets of fries, wraps them all, bags the order, wipes his sweat, smiles at the counter girls, eats a handful of ice, and proceeds to

do a little dance and walk back to the grill.
Pressure, responsibility, success,
thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries.

Other times the dignity comes harder. Digger is an autoworker whose troubles Daniels writes about in dozens of poems published across three decades. In “Digger Thinks About Numbers,” also from Places, our hero contemplates his contribution to the tally of cars built in Detroit on a big sign above the freeway. The poet speaks to Digger, noting how he wishes the sign said,

“Digger made 160,000 parts so far this year.”
You want your neighbor to come over
and congratulate you. But
he ties brake cables—he’d want a sign too.

Diego Rivera, 1927, Detroit Institute of Arts.
Daniels’ heroes aren’t just working out their place in the work place, but in their homes and in the spiritual order as well. Niagara Falls is a longer poem about a man on vacation with his family at the famous site. His mind drifts back to the hardscrabble existence of his parents, his Catholic upbringing, the prayers he learned and forgot, the perverted priest and the one who smoked pot, a shrunken head at Ripley’s Museum, Elvis, St. Francis of Assisi, feeding bread to an insatiable multitude of carp, and a recurring motif about a restaurant called Mama Something’s, where he got a bad case of heartburn. The poem ends by evoking that glimpse of grace that may be the best we can pray for:

We are carp swimming up river, Mama,
all of us, even you. I hold the steering wheel
in one hand. The other rests
on my wife’s knee. My wallet against my ass
tells me little about who I am.
It is the prayer book this world insists on.
The sound of the tires hisses in my ears
like rushing water.

If I was a saint, I might
scoop out my dashboard full of change
and toss it to the wind.
But I am counting it out
to pay my toll.

One of the most tragic poems is “Abandoned, Detroit,” from In Line for the Exterminator. The narrator and his dad take a ride to see if the house they and his great-grandfather lived in was still standing. They

                                                detour down
Benitau, slowing to look for the crumbling heap
of recognizable memory, then blowing through
stop signs back to the freeway.

He reminisces about the Great Flood of Detroit, with

pitching in to clean up the sewage in each other’s basement,
nobody talking about whose shit it was.

And Daniels leaves us with a final image of Motor City grief:

Ragged Flakes of lead paint, yellow and brown,
seeping into the hallowed ground where our dead
were laid out, then carried across the street
to the church that is also no more. My heart’s
a wrecking ball, okay? I’m swinging away
at my holy places of abandonment.
I’m thinking about bricks as seeds.
I’m dreaming the dull sad eye
of the streetlight.

Jim Daniels shares many of our values of working class dignity, art for the people, and human rights. I hope to see you at the University, October 11 or at 2nd Saturday’s on October 13.

This program is partially funded by a grant from the Delaware Humanities Forum, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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