Jim Daniels: Poetry from Detroit's Assembly Lines
Period: 1980s to the present
Lines: (from "Odie's Last Day")
He moves slow today, not caring about foremen
or general foremen or superintendents.
The boys on the line come up:
This your last day? You quitting?
He nods. They wink.
Contemporary poetry tends to follow the same themes, the same plots, and the same settings. One need only construct a love poem by mixing together the requisite ingredients: moonlight shadows on a summer pond, soft ripples beneath warm fingertips, sleight whispers in a lover's ear, etc. These are merely idealized tricks of the trade, showing very little concern for originality and creativity. Given the craft, which does require considerable effort, nearly any individual could pass for a poet; albeit, not necessarily a really good one. However, it takes a truly gifted individual to succeed as a poet among the potential, and largely untapped, audience of the working/middle-class. [ Click to Order Daniels' Punching Out (soft $) ]
Jim Daniels is one of these gifted poets, and his book Punching Out is a narrative collection of poems following the persona, Digger, through the assembly lines of a Detroit auto manufacturer. Daniels' poetry is unlike anything being currently published. His poetry speaks to a potential audience of working/middle-class citizens by incorporating their experiences within poetry: the repetitive mindless work, the atmosphere of survival and struggle, the comraderie of industrial slaves chained to mortgages, bills, and dead end jobs, etc. Daniels, however, does not write about the average auto plant worker--he becomes that worker.
Daniels opens his book with the poem "In the Midnight Zone," located in the first section titled "Basic Training." This poem captures the other side of job training in which Digger must learn who to trust as he is being taken under the wings of two workers with two very different work ethics. Bush shares his frustration of being trapped "Twenty-two FUCKING years" in a dead end job while warning Digger to stay away from Spooner: "He's the laziest motherfucker/ you'll ever see. Don't ever/ do anything for that fucker." In the last stanza Spooner takes Digger aside, telling him Bush is crazy and that tomorrow Digger should work with him: "Show you how this job's/ really done."
Daniels' portrays Bush as a disgruntled worker who continues to take a certain pride in his work rather than being broken by a mere machine. Spooner, however, is a smooth character who manages to skate by on little work. Rather than fight the system like Bush, he knows how not to work within it. This is further described in "Factory Cool" where Digger retraces the painted footsteps of Spooner who manages to keep clean in unbuttoned coveralls and white dyed safety shoes:
One day I worked his machine
tried to stay in his footprints
got twisted up and fell.
No one noticed. I pulled myself up
what's his payoff?blew my nose
into a greasy sleeve.
This image of Digger as an inexperienced, confused, and alienated factory worker changes within the narrative sequence of Daniels' book as he begins to harden to factory life and create a niche for himself. In "Factory Stud" someone at orientation warns Digger "whatever happens/ don't end up in department 53." Digger ends up in department 53 where he loads heavy housings onto pallets, which leaves him sore and exhausted. A month later when Digger has aquired strength and pride in his job, a "new-hire" asks him what department he works in:
I say, 53,
in a matter-of-fact casual tone,
tight smile, little squint.
In "Pieces," the final poem of the book, Digger shares anecdotes of his co-workers that show his acceptance and place among them as an equal. We view Digger's life through his relationships with those around him: Wally denouncing Christ for a toke of a joint; Spooner working the midnight shift after a loss at the track; Santino filling out employee suggestions for a clock radio; Odie reading books and dreaming of college; and Andy, Wally's friend, selling Digger pot. These people have become more than co-workers. They share the same harsh life, the same hard time on the factory assembly linea place where friendships are forged out of sweat, dreams, and high-grade American steel.
Daniels' use of realistic working-class characters and settings, believable situations, and integrated dialogue merged with poetic technique give the book profound insights and perspectives into factory life. This can be seen in "Work Song: Bucket," where Daniels captures the image of eating a fruit pie from a lunch box and integrates it into a lyrical poem through the use of rhyme and repetition. This type of poem is not unlike the songs and chants sung by field and railroad workers in times of slavery, showing its roots in oral tradition.
Daniels also uses other forms within his poetry, including the prose poem. In the prose poem "Midnight Ramble" Daniels describes the setting of working/middle-class life: growling lawn mowers, barking dogs, beer and beer bellies, squares homes on square yards, TV sets, children selling lemonade in summer, and the shoveling of snow in winter. He then incorporates the neighborhood children into factory life as young guys who make false promises that they will never work the factory line for more than a few months or, at most, a few years: "The old guys laugh at that. They say/ temporary my ass." The appearance of this poem on the page as a box reflects the tight, constrictive world in which children are swept up into the dead-end machinery of factory life. There are no white blanks on the page, no spaces of air in which to breathe and live.
The factory's incompatibility and disregard for human life and safety are best reflected in "Santino" and "Proposal." "Santino" is a portrait of the factory supervisor who "never sweats," "only sees numbers," and who ultimately caused a worker to lose his hand by forcing him use faulty equipment: "Santino made him a sweeper." In "Proposal" Digger addresses "a picture/ of Caroline Kennedy going back to work/ after lunch on the 4th of July." He asks her about her job in contrast to his own, where he submits to alcohol checks by guards, smokes dope when the bosses are not around, and is given salt pills and soda to keep from passing out due to the heat. Digger ends the poem by asking Caroline would she marry him, displaying a self-deprecating humor that helps factory workers survive. By brushing off serious, bitter, and stressful situations with a laugh or an off-hand remark, the factory worker is able to work and live within a hopeless situation.
Daniels' poetry reflects a movement towards capturing a "potential audience" by moving away from the themes and subject matter of contemporary poetry. Daniels' strongest poems deal with the alienation and oppression of the American working class (factory workers) by bureaucracies, the insensitivity of supervisors who separate themselves from the workers, and a life of struggle which is not entirely without love and happiness.
This love and happiness is seen among some of the poems that deal with Digger's friends at the factory, but is best represented in "Midnight Date (for Alice)." Digger is at the factory, counting down the hours until he is off and able to go out on a date. As he leaves the factory he looks up at the moon that "looks full enough/ to feed a lot of hearts":
Tonight let's shed our clothes
and dance in this cool air.
Let's taste the moon's
clean white meat.
This reflection on love from a hardened auto plant worker, as well as his experiences and struggles, redefine the subject matter of contemporary poetry. The working/middle-class have been drowning in an ocean of romance novels, pop music, greeting cards, sensational magazines, and television programs that exude the themes of traditional love and loss while more traditional poets, nestled in their air-conditioned offices, continue to add to these murky waters with subject matters that don't interest this untapped and potential audience. Daniels' book, Punching Out, serves as a prophetic white dove with a time-card between its beak, proving that dry land, perhaps, awaits American contemporary poetry.
Also by Jim Daniels:
[ Click to Order Daniels' Blessing the House (soft $) ] In his latest book, Daniels moves from the world of assemblylines to a 1950s Detroit suburb where he explores the fabric of family and faith. Daniels' observations focus on the drama of life, and he writes as candidly about the exploration of adolescent sex as he does about the pain of loss.