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Issue #1794      September 13, 2017

Book Review by Robert Edwards


Not long ago I read yet another article wondering why Americans don’t read poetry. The author raised all sorts of interesting points but the question never asked was: do most people recognise their lives in the poems they hear or read?

We live in an era when poetry isn’t supposed to raise its voice. A lot of poetry these days is maddeningly polite, even the political poetry – or at least the poets writing it say it is political poetry. Too often it lacks a discernible point of view and it’s hard to recognise exactly what it is. If there is political content, it travels incognito under a faked passport and wears a false beard. Not so the poems of BALK! by Virginian poet and long-time editor of Blue Collar Review magazine, Al Markowitz.

The world is on fire!
The soil is poisoned!
The seas are dying!
A tidal wave of brutality is building
to sweep us away! Our
flags are turned to nooses and our hands
wreak of complicity.

People in the US struggle with poverty, with age and illness and lousy health care, with police repression, with trying to make ends meet working crappy jobs – sometimes two or three of them – while decent paying working class jobs have gone the way of the buffalo. In the meantime, towns and cities are left gutted and to rot, unemployment soars and despair is written large on a polluted landscape of drinking water made lethal with lead or so combustible from fracking it ignites with the flick of a lighter.

Many poets would shy away from confronting the mess the right wing has made of America but not Al Markowitz. He lived these poems. These are poems written, not just about the working class, but from the working class. These are poems about interviewing for a new job, about work-related injury, about trying to make it on the margins, about long hours and poor health and the uncertainties of being unemployed.

The Fold assembly line a painful memory
of better times and now
the IP paper mill in Franklin closing
slamming like a door on
so many lives
“Layoffs” the dreaded headline materialising like a
hellish apparition as industrial areas turn to ghost towns
shopping centres empty
dark windows
like missing teeth and
jobs harder to find than
Saddam’s fabled weapons
Change even scarcer and
Hope deflating like a bad tyre

BALK! is a fierce book written from the front lines of the class war. It is angry and hopeful and defiant by turns. The ghosts of the Wobblies walk through these poems. Every worker who ever had to eat shit just to keep a job they desperately needed, or finally had enough and told a boss to go fuck themselves and walked out the door can relate to these poems.

What will it take to get ou
States bankrupted and begging
like the out of work and discarded,
the old and ill tossed
to the angry streets
the moneyed smug feeding
like flies crazed on carrion

These poems tell stories, incidents, and to some extent are anecdotal, so in one sense they are a kind of “personal poem”– the bane of some post-1990 literary critics who see any insertion of the personal into a poem as a betrayal of Marxist principles.

When does it get personal,
the mass destructiveness
of poverty,
of fear?

The poems of BALK! are a broken diary of a worker’s journey through suffering to solidarity. BALK! could be looked on as a kind of long poem – built up out of many separate narratives – about a worker’s life, fears, hopes and sometimes despair. In its own way, this is a working class Odyssey. Essentially, Markowitz has mythologised himself and so becomes transformed into Every Worker, and he has done it in such a way that he simultaneously becomes more human, more vulnerable.

The chill nervousness
of the scrutinised,
the sick tightness in the knotted gut
when the manager says,
step into my office.

BALK! is an act of testifying to one’s own personal history of exploitation and a way of saying No! to the grinding machinery of Empire. Al Markowitz is a man who knows about the soul-draining beat-down of long hours and poor pay and despite a hard history of personal struggle he still lifts his head up and dares to hope for a better world. I believe that if Al Markowitz lived in any number of countries besides the US he would be considered a working-class hero.

I was truly glad for the opportunity to read this collection. BALK! is a book that should be not only widely shared, but used as a blueprint for the possibilities it offers poetry, political and otherwise.

Here is the poem, One More Time, in its entirety.

In the land of
broken machines
he struggles to produce
the collective voices
of the broken and
the stressed
one more time
beneath the crushing weight
of the juggernaut
A song too few will hear
A defiant cry that yet
may grow

People’s World

Next article – Human rights advocate or anti-democratic agent?

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