Shut Up Shut Down
Reviewer: Danusha V. Goska
By Mark Nowak. Afterword by Amiri Baraka. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press (www.coffeehousepress.org), 2004. ISBN 1-56689-163-9. 161 pages. Paper. $15.00.
Shut Up Shut Down contains five formally experimental poems by Polish American Mark Nowak (b. 1964). The poems address de-unionization and de-industrialization in the Rust Belt. Nowak did not want to write “elegies to the worker. ” Rather, he chose to emulate electronic music’s technique of sampling. Nowak does so by stringing together a series of very brief excerpts from a variety of sources. Twenty-five black-and-white photographs of squalid industrial graveyards illustrate his work. Adrienne Rich praises Nowak as “a highly gifted and conscious artist“ charged with explaining to working class people “who they are.”
The book itself is well bound on high quality paper; its design is excellent in itself and in its service to its theme: the cover is a muted rust, bordered in black.
My parents were blue-collar Eastern European immigrants. A PhD, I earn more money cleaning houses than at white-collar work. I live in the prototype for industrial decay: Paterson, NJ. I type these words in a former silk mill; its jobs were outsourced after American workers learned to strike. I have manned picket lines, and risked everything that goes with that duty. I write days after the 2004 presidential election, in which people like me voted against their own interests for a scion and protector of privilege. Key to that election and Nowak’s book is the effort to find a language and a style that communicate working class concerns to a wider audience. I actively disliked this book.
I am one of many for whom reading is a luxury. For low-wage workers there is always the struggle for time; there is the search for that rare commodity-in a city of car alarms and violence-quiet. In a life of constant worry, simple attention is the most precious commodity of all.
I picked up Nowak’s book, tried to read its first page, felt discomfort, felt that old insecurity that haunts members of the underclass when we don’t “get” work we have been told is “high class”-a telling synonym for “worthy.” I squirmed at feeling this all-too-familiar discomfort, the discomfort of being outside the inside. I put the book down. I put the book away, on a shelf in a dark closet, for a week. Took it out. Tried again. Failed again. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
After a couple of weeks of this, I said to myself, “I hate this book.” Urged on by the immigrant work ethic, I took one more whack at it.
What confronted me on the first page: some words are placed in parentheses, some are in boldface type, some appear in block form, some are sprinkled across the page like pepper. Some sentences are punctuated; some are not. Some appear to be from a sentence diagram: “Past (participle) past (participant) past (articulating). ” Workers’ statements are interspersed.
I know that there are audiences who can read such text and feel confident that they “get“ it. I am not that audience. Having read Nowak’s book more than once, I still have no idea what is going on on this first page, other than an experiment in poetic form. Academics appreciate experiments in poetic form. Nowak claims he is not writing this book for academics, but for workers. I rage.
My most uncharitable, paranoid side suspects that Nowak is posing for academics, and using poor and working class persons like myself as props. I do not see poor workers like myself, like my parents, picking up this book and feeling welcomed or respected by it. I do see the Radcliff-educated poetess Adrienne Rich, daughter of a professor and a concert pianist, appreciating this book.
Having formed that uncharitable conclusion, I see what looks like evidence. In an illustrated book about workers, there is not one photo of a worker. Explanatory text added to the book claims that there are three workers in the cover photo. Where? I see what looks like heavy machinery; any recognizable human being has been subsumed by the industrial image. Workers’ statements are presented in a disembodied, decontextualized format. Mere fragments-not even whole sentences-of workers’ statements are placed beside dehumanizing, experimental, politically correct, academically inspired fragments like this: “working class (white) masculinity. ”
The workers’ statements Nowak exploits were not even collected by him; he lifted them from others’ anthologies. He does not provide the workers’ names; ironically, one poem laments working class children writing their names on a wall where those names will be erased (20). I regard words as sacred, as expressions of the bodies and souls of the person from whom those words came. Nowak’s use of nameless, disembodied fragments strikes me the way a pot here or a gourd there taken from a once-intact Indian community, now randomly scattered throughout a museum, strikes some Native Americans. Our individuality is erased as part of Nowak’s larger, socialist agenda. The worker one “understands” from this book is no individual, but a generalized Tom Joad figure.
The choice of Amiri Baraka to pen the afterword does not reassure. Baraka once called for the “elimination of the white man.” Baraka’s racist political stances are not immaterial. His analysis of, and praise for, Nowak’s poetry could alienate many Polish American workers. I will mention just two points here: Baraka places Nowak’s work as part of a desired “Socialist Revolution. ” Those words sound quite different to Poles familiar with Stalinism than they sound to Baraka. And Baraka reports that whites require tutelage by blacks and Hispanics to understand how to be true revolutionaries.
I rejoice that Nowak is published, is published in a handsome volume; I rejoice that his work is well received. What I voice here is a working-class Polish American woman’s perspective. ∆
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