Saturday, July 14, 2007

Working Class, Blue Collar, Immigrant -- and the Poet Blossoms: Peggy Sapphire

[Woody Guthrie]

Poet Philip Levine's gritty portraits of Detroit and other cities have come to epitomize the lives of working-class men. In his autobiography THE BREAD OF TIME, Levine declares that his brothers allowed themselves to be trapped by their middle-class upbringing. Levine's twin had not meant to take this path: "At age fourteen my twin and I vowed we would never participate in the corporate business of this country, a business that appalled us by the brutality of its exploitation of the people we most loved. For me the answer was quite simple to formulate: I became working class." His witty mother used to joke that he had botched the socal experiment, by being born in the middle class, migrating to the lower middle class, and as an adult entering the working class -- "he got it backward," she said.

Yet this is parallel to what the ballad poets like Woody Guthrie, then Bob Dyland, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, urged the Boomer generation to pursue. Forsake the money machine; embrace the land and the people.

When I left college in 1972, the subsequent wave was already arriving there: the students who actually liked the idea of business and wanted MBA degrees. I recall shock and disgust at observing that choice. More recently, I've seen brilliant young people surf the wave of computers, gaming, and the Internet, with many of them straighforwardly declaring they'd pursue available riches through the risky businesses, of design, entrepreneurship, and climbing corporate ladders in sharp new firms where message-bearing T-shirts and chinos with sandals could be the inside-the-shop outfits of upper management. Money is power. What I hear many of them say is, "I'll take the power, too -- I need it to be able to mark out my own territory of revolution."

Peggy Sapphire, Craftsbury (Vermont) resident and former editor of the Connecticut River Review (the poetry journal), sends hungry roots into the composted experience of the 1940s and 1950s working class in which she grew up -- and the struggling existence of a woman who'd married "the wrong man" and borne children with him. Her retreat to Vermont brought her relief, grace, and the joy of fresh love.

Her 2006 collection A POSSIBLE EXPLANATION paints mostly the portraits of her upbringing. When she writes of sitting with her father to eat his omelets, accompanied by rye bread spread with potently fragrant Liederkranz cheese, she opens her father's mouth to tell stories:

Talk began. The politics of war and money, union organizing,
Franco, Jew haters, the KKK, and dead friends.
"Now I can tell you why I ran," he said. "I ran for my life,
my workingman's life, my immigrant life, my
learning English life, my 'brother-can-you-spare-a-dime' life,
my loving Paul Robeson life, my Free The Rosenbergs life.
Now I can tell you how I sang the anthems of
Pete Seeger, The Weavers and Josh White."

Sapphire paints Red Menace, blacklists, the threats of American existence for those who refused to fit smoothly into the American system in the mid 1900s. As a child, she knew frequent moves, intense moments around the radio, warnings about bigots and danger. So she writes vividly of workingmen, of Ruby Dee, and of her Aunt Alice, a Holocaust survivor. Each poem holds a life under a light, and under a microphone, listening to the sounds and the language.

The strongest moments in many of Sapphire's poems are when she lets these voices erupt, quirky, diverse, often embedded in italics within the poems' lines.

I heard Uncle Caleb's a bastid, a stinking rich
malted millionaire

Sapphire's views of her parents' marriage brush lightly against her own struggles. Small windows open into each -- pressing close to them is alluring, to be able to peer around the edges of each frame.

The loose lines and meters of the poems don't always take this work into the fierce power and insistence that lurks underneath the narratives; perhaps they are in some ways so powerful that Sapphire pulls back a bit, protective and kind. I sometimes seek more edge, sensing it just beyond reach in the longer poems. Here, from "Lessons," are short lines that drive incisively and pull me toward the heart of this generous writer:

I remind her
we're all born crying
that once even she
inhaled mightily
shrieked for life
that first time

I remind her
she'll sleep better
after she cries.

I want more of this poet, and I hope she'll continue to take risks, exhuming the past, inhaling the present, entwining both with vivid language. Vermont is fortunate to be her home now, and she'll capture the dangers now in our lives and the ones to come, as she does in the opening of "Eve of Zero":

September and it's raining ice
and our parsley has lost its green
what do they call it when seasons
lose their meaning?

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