The Operating System


Unless You Have One Hell of an Imagination*

You probably had to be there
to appreciate the acrid stench
of melting latex and the various
grades and densities of the raw rubber slabs
we heaved into the smelters
of the fine itch of carbon black
that clung to exposed skin, caked
in the creases of our disposable paper masks,
and fogged in the dark lenses
of protective goggles we wore.
For unless you’ve known these pleasures,
you might not relate to the hunger
that comes during a twelve-hour night shift
worked in the various under-worldly temperatures
at which vulcanization is achieved
while even further below us
furnaces roared for hours as volatile oils
bubbled away and the melt reached
the viscosity necessary for extruding
cured rubber of a particular hardness.
And perhaps only someone intimate
with the necessity of such labor
can understand why so few of us would risk
losing our jobs to negotiate for clean-up time
after work each morning
during which they’d pay us
to scour toxins from our flesh
and for which in return we yielded
our midnight break so that furnaces
would never again need to be entirely shut down.
All of which I’m telling you about now
to explain how we got in the habit
of resting small aluminum pots filled
with red beans and rice to simmer all night
on the hatches to the smelters
and carrying around tablespoons
to eat when we could, and why,
back then, I was too young to imagine
how that filth we ingested might one day
become poetry and sustain us.
*This poem originally appeared in Tar River Poetry.
[textwrap_image align=”right”][/textwrap_image]The poems in Michael Colonnese’s Temporary Agency are mired in imagistic and psychological grit. The night watchmen, construction workers, and assembly-line scabs who populate this chapbook struggle to find significance in the harsh, industrial landscapes where they piece together their livelihoods with hard labor and stoic will, fighting to keep their humanity from being drowned out in the constant, ominous buzz of the machinery around them. In such an environment, the mind is transformed by its surroundings: the “red-hot liquid metal” being molded into doorknockers in a factory becomes “the molten anger of expendable men/ in the glare of that ordinary pour” (“Scabs” 10; 40-41). Similarly explosive and utterly common, hazardous work conditions and anger at being subjected to them threaten different aspects of laborers’ lives. The physical and psychological endurance required for such work can, and often does, break both the body and the spirit. These realistic, unpretentious poems honor those who confront that difficulty in their daily lives.
From loading docks and factory floors, crawl spaces and building sites, Colonnese contends with the shoddy construction of everything from our homes to our labor markets, and despite the lack of integrity apparent in these structures, gives us poems that stand solid, well-made: a solace against the grueling hardships of questionable progress. These poems brim with the existential absurdity of working so hard in the service of a system so inherently flawed, yet ultimately, they refuse defeat. The workers take shifts building and demolishing the tokens of industry, plucking poetry where they can out of the rubble of deteriorating factories and the lives spent within them.
Much of what makes his poetry so powerful also makes Colonnese an excellent mentor; when I was a floundering undergraduate, trying to break away from a lousy upbringing and a series of disappointing service-industry jobs, he was the first person to suggest I should try grad school, and then he showed me how to apply. So much of my work bears the marks of his insight that it is hard to pick out one poem; however, I suppose that “Geometry” will do on account of the fact that it, too, addresses demoralizing work; instead of hard labor in a factory, however, my speaker endures sexual harassment in the service industry, which—as most who have bartended or waited tables could attest—is sadly, but simply, a condition of the job. I think Michael Colonnese taught me to mine such experiences for the transcendent moments necessary to rise above them, though, and I am immensely grateful for such generous guidance.
Michael Colonnese’s chapbook, Temporary Agency, was published by The Ledge Press in 2009; a full-length collection, Double Feature, is forthcoming this fall.
In the dark storage room above the bar I kept last winter,
I found a box labeled Christmas in sloppy Sharpie script
and hauled it, propped on one hip, down the chained-off stairs.
A smattering of regulars swiveled on their stools,
and John, though his hands shook with Parkinson’s, got up to help.
Together, we sutured strands of garland with Scotch tape
and draped them over the smoke-stained mirrors.
In truth, I hated John—same punch line, different day—
the way his hand cramped around the bottleneck of Bud.
Wha’da’ya’ call lesbians who don’t eat meat?
So I stole a stack of paper from the office printer, commenced folding and cutting
the way I’d learned in preschool, simple shapes at first—lopsided diamonds—
folding and unfolding the crude, paper lace
while John regaled us again with the one about this guy Tim
who called in sick, and his boss said, Tim, whenever I’m sick, I go home and fuck my wife—
bend her over the counter, go to town—cures me every time.
So Tim went to his boss’s house and fucked his boss’s wife.
Then John trailed off to a story about Vietnam—the shrapnel scars
all over his legs—and I cut a hole for John to fall into.
Then I cut hearts that fell four at a time
in the trash or to the floor to be swept by nightshift, and kept cutting—spades,
clubs, paper moons, the scars of the moon: a hundred thousand sleepless eyes.
I paused only to make drinks, splashing the snowflakes
with the bottom-shelf bourbon that missed the plastic cups
and made the many-spindled snowflake arms
look delicate as crow’s feet
at the corners of my mother’s eyes
when she is drinking a beer in the kitchen by herself.
The unfolded garlands curve like the creek
I canoe in dreams to the island where my dead sister sleeps,
curled in the crook of an elephant’s trunk.
Her hair has grown back, and when she sees me, she laughs—her laugh—
the first time I’ve heard it in twelve years
like music poured from a briefly opened door.
*This poem appears in my chapbook, Blood Creek.
[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image]Raised in a renovated slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Wilmington, Ohio, Shannon Camlin Ward is the author of the poetry chapbook, Blood Creek (Longleaf Press, 2013). She was a winner of the 2013 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize, and her work has received generous support from Yaddo, Hypatia-in-the-Woods, and the Anderson Center. Her poems have appeared in Great River Review, Superstition Review, Tar River Poetry, and others. Under the direction of Dorianne Laux, she received an MFA in Poetry from North Carolina State University in 2009. She lives with her spouse and two cats in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where she teaches composition at her undergraduate alma mater, Methodist University.
[Editor’s note: Thanks to former PRINT! and online contributor, the always inspiring Farzana Marie, for connecting us with Shannon – and Michael Colonnese, by extension. Take a moment to check out Farzana’s incisive piece from the 2013 series, on Poetry in Social Conflict.]
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