The Eternal Return of the Same

by Gerry LaFemina

Sometime in the late nineties a writer friend of mine said that if you ever wanted to write a Charles Simic poem all you needed was the moon, an alley, a young child, a woman in a babushka, and perhaps a chicken. I thought of this recently after finishing up a first draft of a new poem. Some first drafts make me feel like there are miles to go before the poem gets to sleep, some make me want to throw it away, and a few, like this one, make me feel excited about poetry. Then I reread it, and it felt like it hit a few of the check boxes of some of my poems: a bit of physics? Check. A train? Check. Nostalgia–often in the form of adolescent love? Check. Catholicism? Check. The moon (ala Simic above)? Check.

Fortunately, somehow, I managed to stay away from snow or rain. And birds of any sort. And New York, punk rock, and fire (this last is an image that permeates my forthcoming collection The Story of Ash).

My friend Joseph Fasano writes about horses. His books could run all the races in an afternoon at Belmont. The first section of Erica Dawson’s Big-Eyed Afraid is filled with poems working similar themes, using similar phrasing, form, and imagery in new and different ways. Poems work not by rejecting previous convention but by taking conventions—even those of our own design—and turning them in new ways. By establishing patterns, we can establish reader expectations and then subvert them.

Make it new, the Modernists implored. And we try to. We really do. Our obsessions may evolve, but perhaps not so much our metaphoric objects. And let’s face it, no one ever said to Monet, Claude, perhaps we should talk about your haystack obsession. Or to O’Keefe, Georgia, another flower? No one ever says to a math professor, X again? Can’t we mix up the variable? The fact is that I can write rules for myself (and I do), telling me to avoid certain imagery, but that doesn’t mean my variables for understanding the questions of the universe differ. The go-to catalogue of images are ways of defining and understanding the world of the poem, and through that, understanding the world around us. They are hallmarks of a style just as much as form, voice, or perspective might be.

And the fact is, after recognizing that the poem in question shared some imagistic and thematic hallmarks with my other poems, I thought to make some changes. Could the trains be trucks? Could the middle school students in the poem be senior citizens in an assisted living facility? Variations of the poem answered that perhaps these changes could be made, and the poem’s outcomes would ditto be radically different: If you alter the numbers, the equation at the end will be different, and where this poem wound up surprised me and seemed right. So I made the choice to keep the majority of these “familiar” images. If the poem’s conclusions felt like I’d seen them before, the poem would have required the major re-workings above. Instead, to use the math analogy again, one can do different equations with the same numbers, just by changing the functions (addition and subtraction, multiplication and division…). Ditto, we can draw new conclusions by how we choose to work with those returning tropes.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra talks about the eternal return of the same. Things repeat. Time is a circle (is it any wonder the face of a clock is round). Or to stick with physics, I might mention the oscillating universe theory: the universe ends in a big crunch which is then followed by a big bang, and so on.

Or let’s think of it this way: our obsessions are our obsessions and our sensual stimuli— surely a potential basis for many of our go-to images—are often things we see every day. The world of things is where the ideas lie, and it’s where we live. Is it any wonder writers love to travel? New places provide an opportunity to restock the image warehouse, to provide us with new rhythms, to break us from the familiar. Remember familiar shares an etymology with family. Eventually, we do have to return home. For the poet, that means a return to our home images, our home subjects. Our alleyways and chickens. Our subways and pigeons.

In this way, I am no different than many contemporary artists in general and poets in particular. The goal isn’t to always come up with fresh images so much as we have to come up with ways to make those images seem new. Chefs, in the end, only have a limited number of entree options. The goal for them is to re-imagine what one does with a filet, more so than it is to get a different protein to work with each night. Ditto, my “physics” wasn’t the Big Bang or String Theory (both of which have appeared often) but Dark Matter. Just as a writer of a villanelle has to make the repeating lines not seem the same (and now, it’s become common practice for those repeating lines to only sort of repeat), so, too, do we have to write our familiar images and themes in new ways. They’re familiarity ought to provide comfort for experimentation and function as a leaping off point for us to explore new potentialities. The goal is for them to repeat but not be redundant.


 

Book Review: RUST BELT BOY by Paul Hertneky

RustBeltBoy_Cover-194x300 Rust Belt Boy: 
Stories of An American Childhood
by Paul Hertneky
Bauhan Publishing, 2016
$21.95

Reviewed by Kelly Kepner

Paul Hertneky exemplifies Western Pennsylvanian familiarity in his new essay collection, Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood. Hailing from a place known for its bullshitting, a gift explored in the essay, “Humility and Its Opposite,” Hertneky masters the craft to tell his stories like a true Pittsburgher. The tone of the book feels conversational, and each essay flows together like a chat between friends, or like rivers winding, collecting bits of the shore, and converging gloriously at the point.

Rust Belt Boy includes twenty-six essays that vary in content from early Springsteen concerts, to Priesthood, pipe manufacturing, and football. Throughout the collection, Hertneky balances flawless prose, and humorous personal narrative with historical research, to describe Western Pennsylvania with an energy that rivals that of the 19th century industrial boom, which put Pittsburgh on the world map as a manufacturing epicenter—a reputation that still colors the shores of its rivers today.

As a baby boomer growing up in Pittsburgh, regional history never made it onto Hertneky’s class syllabi. In his essay, “A Turning Tide,” he writes, “We were taught to look ahead, not back. Conquer nature, explore the frontier, exploit the resources, manifest destiny; if anything truly important had happened here it would have been included in the textbooks that came from Boston.” This collection gives voice to the unspoken past. The pages glow with flecks of historical context that leave readers wondering how they had never heard any of this before.

Of the collapse of the steel industry, he writes:

 The steel industry alone lost nearly 300,000 jobs in the blink of an eye, setting off a widespread exodus, one that equaled the largest internal migration in US history. Ironically, roughly six million African Americans fled into the north when the industrial revolution began, and the same number of industrial workers moved out when the era ended a hundred years later. But the Great Migration north took fifty years to unfold, whereas the emptying of the Rust Belt took place in only twenty years.

Readers are reminded that Pittsburgh left its thumbprint on thousands of structures and bridges, first drafting, then manufacturing, and shipping the pieces far beyond the reach of its own murky rivers. The manufacturing company where Hertneky’s father worked, American Bridge, drafted plans for the Astrodome, the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Woolworth Building, the Sears Tower, Hancock Towers, Varrazano Narrows Bridge, and San Francisco’s Bay Bridge.

“The Nation’s First Economy,” the eighth essay in the collection, reveals the unique origins of Harmony and Economy, small towns upriver from Pittsburgh that were founded by George Rapp, a self-proclaimed prophet from Germany. It is an essay devoted entirely to historical research, but Hertneky manages to detail a century of information with efficient prose and lively pacing. Reflecting on Rapp’s decision to plant his community north of the city, he writes, “How could he resist this magnificent stretch of land, rimmed by gentle slopes and ridges, blessed with virgin forests and riverbed soil, perfect for vineyards and orchards?”

The language in Rust Belt Boy never falters or falls short of vivid. Hertneky demonstrates an ability to make anything sound luxurious. In “Sanctuary,” he writes beautifully about millworkers: “The string of workers threw back shots of whiskey and beer chasers, then, like hot billets traveling down the rolling mill, exited the front door on the corner…” In the same essay, readers experience the Laughlin Memorial Library of Ambridge, Pennsylvania. The childhood recollection feels familiar, yet deliciously unique:

Noticing the sunbeams had slipped from the table and climbed the walls, I resurfaced with the feeling of having been swimming undersea or through a passageway between worlds—I remember it as if it were yesterday because it still happens. I feel woozy, shaking off a familiar disorientation, wiping my palms down the length of my torso as if some slime remained from a membrane through which I passed. How long had I been away?

Hertneky repeatedly pulls readers through time and space with his use of sensory details. In the essay, “The Prurient Power of Pierogi,” readers are whisked into the basement of Divine Redeemer church, thankful for the Catholic doctrine that no meat be eaten on a Friday. Hertneky proves that the language of food bridges cultural and spiritual differences, and whether it’s spelled “pirohi, pierogi, or pirozhki” the experience remains the same:

With my fork, I cut the firm potato pillow in half, exposing the fine filling placed there by ancient hands, refined through generations of argument, fulfilled by sunlight, pitchforks, and cauldrons of boiling water. I flipped its gaping side down in a pool of butter and smeared it across the plate.

The exemplary writing in Rust Belt Boy is undeniable, but one gets the sense while reading the essays, that the descriptions come from a deep love of the subject, not just a professional understanding of language.

Hertneky divulges his intentions to honor the characters that kept Pittsburgh alive in his opening essay, “A Turning Tide.” Neighborhood mothers, former lovers, and millworkers saunter as fully and confidently across the pages as if they came from our own memories.

In “A Flame That Water Fed,” Charlie, the uncle who drank seawater from bottles he kept in his closet, is often seen “…standing at the kitchen sink, absentmindedly catching and caressing the stream running from the faucet.” Hertneky’s boss at Armco Steel, Rocky Marschuk, had a “…sullen nastiness [that] repelled anyone who dared approach, and he went through helpers like a weasel in a warren of bunnies.” Then in “Itching All Over,” we see another boss, Jonesy who “weighed about 260, torched fifty smokes on a slow day, bit his nails to the quick and lay under a spigot of vodka every night.” Hertneky’s profiles are dynamic and complex as he reminisces, reflects, and challenges what it means to be from the American Rust Belt. “Light and Nature,” an essay about an ex-girlfriend, showcases a broad range of descriptive ability as we move from the grit and clamor of industrial Pittsburgh to matters of the heart:

 When I visited Liz in Athens, we spent most of our time outdoors, where she seemed propelled by breezes and softened by sun. Natural elements took possession of her and, within the reach of music, she seemed to rise straight out of the pitiless world.

Rust Belt Boy offers an honest glimpse through the windows of mid-century Pittsburgh duplexes; from immigration, corruption, complacency, and resiliency, Hertneky lays the scaffolding of the city’s past and leaves readers feeling optimistic about the next wave of innovation. For “like tempered steel, the locals have been made sharper and stronger through extreme stress” and there is always “rescue among the ruins.” But the collection is sure to move beyond Western Pennsylvania, to incite meditations on, and conversations about readers’ own coming-of-age. About where we come from and where we’re going, and how to accomplish it all together.