The full text of Dave Newman’s “Johnstown, Pennsylvania” reads: “The chief of police / tasered his son / at Thanksgiving dinner.” Quirkiness aside, those seeking creative line-breaks, elevated language or experimental forms might be disappointed in his 173-page collection The Poem Factory (White Gorilla Press, $11.99). But if it’s a big-hearted speaker, a cast of raggedy characters and a celebration of blue-collar bacchanalia they’re after, this is the book for them.
Newman, who lives in Trafford, has been on a roll recently. He’s published two novels (Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children and Two Small Birds) and one of this reviewer’s local favorites, The Slaughterhouse Poems. While The Poem Factory doesn’t feel as well-crafted and insightful as previous works, there’s still good fun to be had.
Newman’s speaker is both realist and romantic. A diploma-holding factotum, he confronts this duality in “Carpenter,” saying, “I’ve been to college / and fallen in love with language / and gone back to college / and gone back again / and still I lack good work. / My father was an electrician / with an 8th-grade education / who believed degrees / would make his children rich / and I am the opposite of rich.” It’s a career path most literary types will recognize: Bewitched by the written word, you must hustle to make ends meet.
The Poem Factory is peopled with warts-and-all working-class heroes rarely encountered in poetry, and maybe that’s the point. To paraphrase a line of Newman’s from another book, “Poetry should have people in it.” Often found at jobs, bars or strip clubs, his characters can be fascinating or frightening (depending on your worldview), but they’re always human. They range from Nurse Bob, a caregiver who “forgives everyone / even those who do not ask” to Kimberly, a young widow in “The Wrong Side of the Bed,” who sleeps there “to be close to the memory / of her dead husband / … she watches / terrible movies just to see the couples dance.” Poetic empathy soars in these poems, while others approach bar-stool philosophizing.
Surprisingly, the speaker’s vitriol isn’t aimed at capitalism but at ivory-towered academics who have reduced poetry to a sideshow, embodied here by a ukulele-playing Robert Bly. Instead, Newman champions the common men Whitman embraced, stating, “it’s the God in Whitman who saves us all and scares the weak and the rich and the powerful.” Amen to that.