From Milltown to Malltown
By Jim Daniels with Jane McCafferty
Photographs by Charlee Brodsky
Marick Press, 77 pages, $16.95
The demolition of America's working class was accomplished in just a few generations. The physical plants where the workers once worked are still vanishing. It was just in 2002, for instance, that The Waterfront retail complex opened on the former site of U.S. Steel's Homestead Works (which had closed in 1986). A vast riverfront mill was replaced by a vast riverfront mall.
Strikingly, photographer Charlee Brodsky's cover image of From Milltown to Malltown documents the time after the mill's bulldozing but before construction of consumer palaces like the AMC Waterfront movie theater. It's a place of scraped and puddled earth and useless remnant smokestacks. The rest of this book of photographs and poems record what followed: Homestead's half-abandoned main street, stripped of its jobs and shed like an old skin right alongside the sleek but soulless new strip mall, land of debit cards and history's banishing.
The book gathers Brodsky's black-and-white images and 36 short poems they inspired, by Jim Daniels and Jane McCafferty. It's an impassioned work, at once angry and ironic.
In his poems, Daniels (who wrote the lion's share) works like a jazz improviser, with the photo the chord progression, the verses riffs exploring small visual details. "Available," which opens the book's "Milltown" section, smartly deconstructs traditional architecture as represented by a shuttered bank: "[T]he pillars are and always have been ornamental."
"A Series of Questions in Commemoration of a New Fence" sharply evokes the numbness inspired by the sight of a fenced-in vacant lot: "What good is a fence / you can't peer through, can't claw / your fingers around, can't / shake and rattle, can't climb?" And his "On This Site," which opens the "Malltown" section, eulogizes the sadly marooned brick smokestacks that stand outside that AMC multiplex, guarding history's emptied vault.
McCafferty offers poems like "Return," regarding the narrator's hard-luck hometown: "In a dream you walked into rubble, lay down alone, curled onto your side in the shards and the stones, and sang." In her "House with Flag," children's imaginations -- a humble house might be a sea-faring vessel! -- collide with hard-earned adult fatalism.
In all, the "Malltown" poems are slightly less satisfying. There's still bitingly funny stuff like Daniels' "Moo," comparing loose shopping carts in a parking lot to cattle roaming the plains. But especially in poems accompanying photos of people (rather than landscapes), you can feel the poets struggling to distinguish between decrying a homogenized environment and mocking the individuals who inhabit it.
Daniels' "Workout: Shopping Villanelle," for instance, begins "Shopping's hard work, I don't care what anybody says," paired with its photo of a slumpy guy shuffling through some automatic doors. The target feels untoward in a book by three Carnegie Mellon instructors. The poet's empathy with working folks comes through better in poems like "Hello My Name is Eric and I'm ...", in which Daniels explores the complexity of the relationship between a current and former minimum-wager.
Interestingly, meanwhile, Brodsky's Malltown is absent the teeming auto traffic that is many visitors' experience there. Rather, her images locate stillness that emphasize the sense of isolation amidst material abundance.