Workers and Tourists: A review of Lines the Quarry by Robin Clarke and Niagara Transnational by Sarah Heady

by Amy K. Bell


The apocalypse narrative of today has a few established conventions: regular people morphing into maddened, evil creatures; the crises of cities and the destructive potential of the mobs they contain; the tightening of resources and the difficult (or not so difficult) morality of their distribution. These are the tropes of ‘disaster porn’. These are the ways we find to talk about the things we don’t actually wish to talk about. Apocalypse is a sort of funny umbrella for all that we suspect is on a wrong trajectory in our world. It’s a media darling, as in “The Snowpocalypse of 2010,” as if every year is bound to have its own “-pocalypse”, prefix attachable. It’s a stiff word which ignores the interwoven complexity of life. How can anything be seen fresh with these deadened, certain eyes?

In Robin Clarke’s Lines the Quarry, there is an invigorating feeling of refusal. Her poems pour through real bodies and minds, workers and family members, those who fought for justice through union organizing, bringing her readers into the spaces they occupied. The book opens with Worker’s Compensation data for 2006 — the numbers, the categories of worker types. We hover over the list of injuries like those injuries hover over the lives of individuals. We experience the dominance of statistics over personal loss, the value(s) sharp on the page, the true cost vague. In showing us these statistics, and then leaving them for deeper depths of human experience, as readers we become prepared for simultaneous truths, where the statistic and the lived life are both real and consequential.

In prose blocks and columned verses, Clarke’s poems are nimble, alternately arresting and propelling in firm sequences. There is no one speaker or home of reference. Internal and external life is simultaneous, as shards lay across each other when they fall. External life is wrapped in colloquial voices using everyday syntax and simply formed expressions: “Dear New York Times, I got married six times.”, “The anti-submarine will be used, I suppose, to kill the oil?”, “Who’s speaking? You will be executed.” This sort of narration barely communicates the gravity of the everyday working person’s vulnerability, but by veiling it, we are all the more interested in investigating. Soon a narrative emerges: corporations, universities, authoritative bodies and their mascots live among us, plain as next door, but the power of their interests is so much greater than our own, individual motivations. This may be one of Clarke’s greatest accomplishments – fine-tuning our attention, allowing us to see the small impacts of our demands, both good and bad. This is a deliberate quieting, a rejection of the epic, disastrous, and ominous voice intending to “restore the way it was before”, as if that had ever been possible.

Clarke’s sly prompts to action are imbued with admiration. In fact, all political action occurring today is embedded in history. A poem titled “Genora Johnson Dollinger” (also known as the ‘Joan of Arc of Labor’ who organized sit-down strikes on GM in Flint, MI in the 1930s), which specifically addresses women as activists, ends with:

And we can, under the category of weapons, unsew a stitch for the new world. They grab the jacket’s back just slip right through.

Clarke’s diction insists on closeness, serving as tendon, or mortar, for reader and narrator and real life. There is no pastoral flatness in Clarke’s field of historical vision; we’re almost hearing from Dollinger herself in that final line.

Strategic omission, as Brenda Hillman puts it in her introduction to the book, bears echoes of deception. In a poem from the fourth and final section, “Lines the Quarry”, a first-person narrator moves through teenage angst and exploitation, Greek sacrifice, and “unmanned pockets” (perhaps used here to reference individuals without complex financial situations, ie. the homeless, the young or underemployed, impoverished):

I wish you would speak from more clearly.

It’s a striking example of Clarke’s parataxis, in which the origin of a person’s speech, the mind or voice box, and the origin of what is being spoken about is collapsed, fallen together. I wish you would speak from [a certain place], I wish you would speak [about where you came] from. Another fertile moment occurs in the third section, “In the Building Coming Dawn”:

Dear universal ailing
lifelong resource, what does rapid
pulse & the individual
“my life” have to do with it?

Clarke skips through these lines, generating meaning in the folds of space between ideas. Invisible entities shape our world with equal weight as visible, material ones: closed hospitals, steelworkers long moved away, paychecks long since deposited and spent. Even the book’s title evokes both material imagery – drill lines marking exposed rock, or perhaps worry lines – and immaterial ones, as lines of poetry.

Clarke, a lecturer and worker’s rights activist in Pittsburgh, is clearly interested in bringing to the fore certain names: union organizers Dollinger, Asa Philip Randolph, Cesar Chavez and ‘Mother’ Jones, as well as Clarke’s own mother who, as we learn over the course of the three sections of the book, worked as a cashier and died of cancer. And Troy Davis, convicted and executed (wrongfully, many argue) for the murder of a police officer in Savannah, GA. The poem about him pecks and debates: “Troy Davis was. Troy Davis was innocent. Innocent on. Troy Davis was innocent on Wednesday. On his cot. On Thursday Troy Davis was. Was not.”

Another poem in the last section is a list of twelve names, alphabetically arranged. I had to Google them, first their individual names, which revealed nothing (the usual anonymous slew of ancestry and ‘find this person’ sites). A second search, this time with the names as a collection, proved fruitful. These names, I learned, were attached to an event: these were the twelve victims of the Knox Mine disaster. Due to the nature of the collapse (waters from the Susquehanna River broke into the illegally dug mine), their bodies were never recovered. Is this list about reviving radical history, a responsibility to investigate the past? Was I meant to search for them? It’s hard to say. They are offered quietly, but heavily, in the white space of the page.

One feels Clarke would like to write past the empty shuddering of decline and detachment (“shitfuckpissdamn / I think is the missing link.”) and back into brutal, soulful life. Consider the quarry. A quarry is both desolate and utterly political; it is an exposure of the wealth of nature and a perversion of it. It is visually non-human, a scorched blast into the earth, and yet the quarry is a baby of investment and a mother to many human hands and pockets, some empty, some lined with money.

If Lines the Quarry is set in the besieged workplaces of working class Americans, mid-century to the present, Sarah Heady’s first book, Niagara Transnational roams through and over their vacation destinations and into the imagination of the American tourist. Who do we become when we’re ‘on vacation’? What goes on, as Heady said in an interview, “behind the scenes of our memories, the fucked-up scaffolding that supports the fun”?

There is an electric, sometimes erotic, draw to Heady’s American places. On vacation, pleasure is a kind of kinetic energy inherent in all things, both in the party dress and the wrecking ball that hangs beside an old building in the old part of town. Walking the Atlantic City boardwalk, or seated behind the lap bar in the car of the roller coaster, or staring into the lake, or wandering through mission ruins on the Santa Fe Trail: any place may happen to us.

Visceral details —the poet is there— create the croaky, plainspoken song. Its rhythms unfold in languid vacation time, quickening and easing as in the unscheduled day:

I sleep so little yet wake each day
more rested I
heavenward slip

mare’s tails feather the sky
poor as acid rain public art.

On the page, the poems appear unsettled, without a consistent starting point on the page. Some are spaced with colons, or superscripted letters, or long blanks. The architecture, one feels, is alive: “The brave thing was not war but sticking Milwaukee out: / her tentacles reaching for us down the freeway”.

Amidst Vacationland’s seesaw of safety and danger, we are witness to an abandonment. Crafted resorts and working towns have been abandoned by people and industry; the rest of the landscape is an afterthought. It is in those spaces that Heady finds a muse, a particular beauty born in the unraveling.

When asked about the attraction to ruin, Heady describes a compelling, modern space: “There’s this concept of the ‘third landscape’…that refers to places abandoned by humans, currently in the process of regaining great biodiversity because they are ‘unattended.’” In one of “The Flyover Poems”, an eye wanders over a layered landscape, the kind awaking to its own life:

humans cannot
believe sunken
townships etched on the surface
in silver pen, grids
blanketing vast gunmetal
habitat. an arm of island

cold water patterns, diagonal roads
across liquid as if conned
snake oil towns lay flooded beneath.

farmland a ghost on the big
abiotic shaft running
parallel to want.

It is the physical sensation of failed civic promises that Heady captures so well – the strains of pollution that seem to run through this poem’s watery landscape, the divisions of the land like a severing of a limb – that we may feel the environmental disaster that is our collective desire.

From reading this collection, one feels the bravery in truly inhabiting a place, in sinking teeth and body wholeheartedly into it, and on the other side of that coin, the frustration and disorientation of detachment from place, whether out of necessity or whim. There is a memorable image in the story poem “Burning Sugar Cane — Honolulu”: the narrator describes riding through the fields of a sugar cane plantation on horseback, tasked with setting the cane alight in preparation for harvest. She wears a grass skirt, which smolders around her waist, and when the job is done, she serves donuts to seated tourists, and sprinkles “some sweet, sweet dandruff onto each waiting pastry”. One tourist tucks a dollar into her skirt, which promptly bursts into flames. I love this image for its depiction of land and industry as a kind of flammable clothing we wear, the gesture of the dollar consumed in its lifecycle.

Niagara Transnational is a travelogue which investigates, with charm and a sort of punk grace, not only the land, but the body’s – our bodies’ – reactions to the land. No poem is like another; in fact, the pages of this square-shaped book are used to their fullest capacity, as if every corner has something to see and discover. There are songs, wishes, personas in conversation, and troubled promises. There are long gazes into fraught spaces, where histories large and small have left their ghostly shapes. The horizon in these poems is complicated but expansive. The poet is firmly at the helm. She writes, “I’m asking you to consider all possibilities.”

Lines the Quarry by Robin Clarke
Omnidawn, 2013
Niagara Transnational by Sarah Heady
Fourteen Hills Press, 2013