Shut Up Shut Down
Coffee House Press
Friday, December 3rd, 2004
Shut Up Shut Down is a book of powerful unities, in which academic methods and materials are put to passionate political use. These five documentary poems harness the energies of photography, narrative and dramatic form, syntactic fragmentation, anecdote and testimony, intertextuality, chronology and journalistic fact to enact the harmful march of capitalism over the backs of the working class. Although these fiery poems provide little room for optimism, they also provide models of human bravery and a method for potentially dismantling the false consciousness that keeps us all in our striated societal places.
These poems are built on rigorous, scholarly collage (and feature detailed works-cited lists), but seem interested in both educating the reader and insisting on the visibility (and audibility) of the socially marginalized voices that ring through the texts. The forms that emerge from these internal pressures are striking. The first poem, “$00/ Line/ Steel/ Train,” is a lengthy ekphrastic series corresponding to numbered photographs from a book called Industrial Facades. Here, chunky prose poems interweave a sometimes nostalgic, brainy, or aesthetically-preoccupied main text with bold-faced testimony from laid-off steel workers; these prose poems are then followed by brief cloudlets of LangPo-style fragments, as in the following installment:
After lunch at Lucky’s Texas Red Hots I took my grandfather to the steel
plant to check on his pension benefits. U.S. Steel is getting out of the
steel business and they’re getting out of this community. “Not
suspecting that the category of ‘Progress’ is completely empty and
abstract.” They’ve raped it, soaked it, and they’re saying, Good-bye. At
this juncture the choice may be between buying the entire picture or just
the frame. We’ve been like sheep being led to the slaughter of
unemployment, into the future without steel mills, without jobs; and
our mouths have been stilled and we’ve had nothing to say.
from the window
of the Am/trak
This form is unwieldy to be sure, and productively so, because it cannot digest its parts, and provides no prescribed method of reading. The reader can thus dwell in the various textures and juxtaposition of its elements; as the un-bolded voice gets more airy and theoretical, the bold-faced voice grows imagistically expansive. The mixed metaphor of the sheep led to a future that is also a slaughter synthesizes resonantly in the image of stilled mouths. In this case the final language cloudlet provides us a précis of the content that has preceded it; disjointed and disembodied, it can only observe the broken “Am,” the emblematic appearance of the “Empire Builder.“
It is thrilling and moving to see the methods of post-modern poetry being put to such immediate ends again. By making no claims to a single narrating perspective, “$00/ Line/ Steel/ Train” is able to present different themes and voices by turns; black and female workers are heard, and generalities are avoided. The poeticized turns literally frame and sometimes adorn the more straightforward voices of the workers, and yet these bold-faced voices remain trenchant, affecting, and visually prioritized.
If “$00/ Line/ Steel/ Train” opens the book with an exhilarating yet ultimately cerebral experience, two middle pieces have a more emotional effect. “Capitalization” proceeds as a series of single lyric columns. It combines a bold-faced, first-person Red-Scare-era account of a union formation and its busting with an italicized, journalistic recounting of Reagan’s quashing of the air traffic controller’s strike in 1981. The two narratives follow the same familiar trajectory of the triumph of the powerful over the weak, yet they overlap, intertwine, and depart from each other in beguiling and unexpected ways, at the level of the word. Meanwhile, a third linguistic thread, modeled on a stylebook’s guide to capitalization, weaves a dryly prophetic commentary through the text:
It was terrible, even after the elections.
My God, it was terrible.
He was asked in the Oval Office whether,
as onetime head of the Screen Actors Guild,
he felt “any pangs about firing” workers.
The fear was so thick
you could cut it with a knife.
My family was continually victimized.
Mr. Reagan replied: “Oh, you bet.
Anyone who went through the Great Depression
thinks that is the worst thing that can happen
to anyone. I do feel badly. I take no joy in this.
There is just no other choice.”
Capitalize all names of holy days and holidays.
Capitalize Christmas, Easter
Capitalize Labor Day [ . . . ]
Here one must admire Nowak’s gift for meticulous excerpting, his skill with pacing. Most readers familiar with the ways of the world will know how these narratives are going to turn out (badly!) yet the nightmare slowness of this method makes the whole thing suspenseful and heart-wrenching all over again, and allows the reader to ride out the white- and blue-collar workers’ emotional arcs of hope and misery. The end product is solidarity.
On a forceful par with “Capitalization” is the quasi-drama “Francine Michalek Drives Bread,” which proceeds in acts and employs quotations from Brecht and from labor movement icons as it dramatizes the plight of its fictional ‘heroine’. Here artistic rather than documentary priorities briefly prevail (only two works cited!) and the result is psychological aptness and some lovely writing. Francine’s deep identification with the labor she performs cannot be dislodged, even by her grief at the death of her husband:
The television drones All in
watches them with Francine.
when she’s humming, she’ll
catch her hands turning
an absent wheel.
It wasn’t because of reason
that I wept.
But when I stopped
weeping, that was not because of
on her couch watching Archie
in his chair;
is not ringing in either where. [ . . . ]
The poem’s affinities with Brecht are trumpeted in a forward yet the poem embodies a strange version of Brecht’s alienation effect; in a post-modern poemscape in which even the most disruptive poetic techniques of fragmentation and cross-cutting are legible, it is the narrative, characterological and political content of these poems that is unconventional and always gripping.
Shut Up Shut Down also offers two more lengthy poems which proceed by the collage methods that typified its opening pieces, and these are strong. One documents a racially motivated murder, and here it is Nowak’s departure from his own notional devices that provides the poem’s punch. Half of the final poem, “Hoyt Lakes/Shut Down,” is devoted to photographs; in this poem, which deals with the book’s most recent events, we finally glimpse that certain global supervillain we have been awaiting all along: Wal-Mart.
This striking, powerful, and innovative book ends with a rollicking Afterword by revolutionary greybeard Amiri Baraka, in which an acute and incisive line of thought occasionally surfaces in a tide of pleasingly loopy verbiage; please, do not read this first. Whether a book with such academic markings can be called ‘working class poetry’ (what does that phrase mean, anyway?) or whether Nowak’s background as the child of immigrants and workers provides bona fides for his writing seems debatable. What seems clear is that Nowak has shown (once again) that poetry, in its multiplicity, in its ability to track many discourses at once, in its recognition of and departure from convention, in its relationship to time and to history, is an apt tool for dismantling oppressive hierarchies, for challenging the complacency that is complicity.