This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman.
At the time that William Wordsworth wrote in the preface to his book Lyrical Ballads of his intent “to imitate, and, as far as possible, to adopt the very language of men,” the very notion of using such language was a new and surprising turn in the development of English-language poetry. But, even more progressive was his turning of the poetic gaze that would bring stories of the farmer and the common man to the widely-printed page, transforming the notion of what poetry could potentially do in depicting the joys and struggles of the every day. Though Nowak’s collection is certainly rooted in the language of the everyday, it is the aforementioned redirection of the poetic gaze that recalls Wordsworth’s directive language. Wrestling the art of poetry back from only the learned or privileged performed the important function of renewing interest in the form which has, in centuries since, entered and lapsed from at least the American public interest, resting in the hands of a concentrated number of hands often centered in and around academic communities.
Perhaps it is with this ebb and flow in mind that Amiri Baraka writes in the afterword to Shut Up Shut Down that Nowak’s work exists against a “literary, academic, blankness of the American ‘aesthetic’,” not engaging in “addictive mist doping,” of which Baraka seems to accuse quite a large portion of poetries. Though many poets engage with the same themes that Nowak does in Shut Up Shut Down, the use of a variety of found texts of many different genera that bridges a divided poetry world in its discussion of both the causes and effects of ubiquitous forces of unemployment, poverty, and disillusionment.
Collaging the many different voices that surround the American Labor movement, the depth and complexity intrinsic to the debate becomes an intimate and personal appeal stemming out of the myriad of often confusing issues and veiled discussion that exists only in the realm of economic theory and stock markets.
A collection of documentary long poems, Shut Up Shut Down ranges between sequences verging on stark ekphrasis of ruined industrial facades (one example being the opening poem “$00 / Line / Steel / Train”) to modern interpretations of dramatic verse and monologue (such as “Francine Michalek Drives Bread”). Poems such as the second sequence, “Capitalization,” expertly splice together texts that create speakers existing nearly simultaneously in the text. In “Capitalization,” a poem that takes on an air traffic controllers strike in the 1980s, samples a grammar book, newspaper articles, and scholarly texts in rapid, stitchic sequences telling three weaving stories denoted by differences in typeface:
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 Actor’s 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 just is no other choice.”
Capitalize all names of holy days and holidays.
Capitalize Christmas. Easter.
Capitalize Labor Day.
The competing narratives, one from accounts of union members, another from news clippings featuring presidential anecdotes, and a third mimicking a grammar textbook coexist on the page as if occurring at the same moment, each (to varying degrees) seemingly independent of the other, yet dependent on the discord created by their presence as a poetic unit. To call the language simple is not to rob it of its poignancy. Such a moment of insecurity, security, and ambivalence existing side-by-side, each seemingly unaware of the other, causes a tension that mounts results from the forward-trajectory of each narrative and impact on each other, ending in a “Works Cited” page that recounts the various sources from which Nowak pulled or those consulted in the construction of the sequence.
Each poem ends with a bibliography that serves the dual purpose of providing source texts or further readings, in addition to creating an interesting ethos around Nowak’s endeavor; though found texts are often dogmatically transparent with regards to their sources, in the age of real-time fact-checking, the provision of this material endows the poems with a kind of action plan, a way for the reader to become more acquainted with the conversation surrounding the poems, placing the work among the other documentary efforts that aim to expose the often asynchronous and conflicting views of its participants.
Other poems such as “June 19, 1982,” a documentary retelling of the murder of Vincent Chin, mix text and image to tell the many sides to the stories of stresses and pressures of being unemployed. Through a mixture of text pulled from a study of the historical definitions of the term, various personal reflections on the emotional and physical toll of being unemployed, and an interpreted narrative of the events of the titular day, the layering of physical and emotional experience paired with images of industrial ruin creates a stark sequence that illustrates the lengths to which some may go when they feel their livelihoods threatened. Like several of the sequences in the book, Nowak adopts a modified haibun as a form—a kind of contemplative mode that pits prosody against poetry, effecting a kind of call and response in the case of some sequences, or a clearer division of fact and reaction. In the case of “June 19, 1982,” it is certainly the latter.
As the story progresses, imagery and text undergo a movement from external views to the more internal. The text, whose poetic musicality recalls hip-hop and urban poetries, begins (in the first section) detailing the “bleached/hate speech” leading to Chin’s murder and ends with the collective recognition that
All that is solid stolen or sold / base bias bigotry gold // and bones are at the bottom / of the melting pot
The dissociation of Chin’s killers who, motivated by a twin sense of insecurity and bigotry that was tantamount to the “bleached/hate speech” of the opening, are, at the end of the poem, part of the same melting pot that makes the diverse American culture.
Often, image used alongside poetry serves as nothing more than a supplement, but Nowak’s use of the pictorial alongside the text of Shut Up Shut Down feels right; as he opens the book in “$00 / Line / Steel / Train,” “The basic form is the frame,” a statement that rings true in how Nowak uses visual elements to depict the kinds of environments and cityscapes in which his poems live—even if, as in the case of this first sequence, the poems address images that are conjured through the prosody and then broken down by short poetic contemplations. The sequences of Shut Up Shut Down live among the communities they describe, their language more of the people that of the political or the academic; without at least the gesture toward image or situation, these poems would feel removed from the situation in which Nowak’s speakers so desperately live, be it an air traffic controllers strike or a sudden shut down and accompanying layoffs of steel workers.
Revisiting Baraka’s Afterword, “Class Reunion,” it is clear that Shut Up Shut Down is not a set of narratives that wish to ameliorate or downplay conditions, but to expose and educate about the day-to-day struggles of many Americans who find themselves in difficult economic positions. Though published in 2004, in the light of America’s purported emergence from the period known as the “Great Recession,” Shut Up Shut Down is of no less significance, timeliness, or relevance. Though the voices may once again be quieter among the current discussion of economic recovery, perhaps it is not a question of listening for them but doing as Nowak does and shifting gaze, discovering them in the every day.