JACKKNIFE: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS
In Jackknife: New and Selected Poems, Beatty travels the turns and collisions of over 20 years of work. She moves from first-person narratives to poems that straddle the page in fragments, to lines that sprawl with long lines of train tracks. Always landing in meaning, we are inside the body - not in a confessional voice, not autobiography - but arriving through the expanded, exploded image of many stories and genders.
The new poems leap imagistically from the known world to the purely imagined, as in the voice in "Abortion with Gun Barrel": "I am the counselor,/there are cracks in the barrel of the gun/there is aiming/shots of sorrow-/shots of light." Commitment to a rabid feminist voice continues, but arrival has a new ring to it, with beginnings rescripted: "I am a bastard./I walk around in this body of mine."
Beatty's fascination with the highway and the breakout West jackknifes at the crossroads of the brutal and the white plains of loss-the body torn down and resurrected in the 21st century.
"Jackknife is a book that secures Jan's place in American literature
as one of the fiercest and bravest poets writing today."
- Maria Mazziotti Gillan
"Beatty's lyric comes from the edge of a knife that continues to carve honest beauty from an America we learn only from gifted hands. The arc of this poet's brave heart moving through her life brings back to us the song of who we are. This is a fabulous collection."
-Afaa M. Weaver
"A jackknife is a large pocket-knife. The bend of cab and trailer. A V-shaped dive. The sharp turn of language into bastard diaries in 'Lake is a red pigment,' pure lineage from the furnace of the word. With volcano, rail car, humor and pain, Beatty is a throne of fire on blotter-acid imagery."
"At the heart of Jan Beatty's body of work is desire for recognition from the birth father, the artist in prisons and homeless shelters, tales of hardcore sex. These threads tangle into an almost mythical quest for freedom and clarity. One of our most fearless poets, Beatty tends to the monsters inside her. And we are all the better for it."
In Jan Beatty's fourth collection, The Switching/Yard, she takes us through the ravaged landscape of the American West. In unflinching lines of burning lyric and relentless narrative, she forges the constructed body into movement. What is still stereotyped as the romantic journey - now becomes as scarred as the Rust Belt. What lives in our collective unconscious as the Golden West becomes almost surreal, as these poems snap that vision in half with extended description of ghost explorers.
We see the open truck cab, the farmworkers on the corner waiting for pick-up; we see the speaker returning West to find the long-abandoned story of the birthfather. There is no stable landscape here except the horizontal action of moving through. Landscape becomes story. In this extended tale of the idea of family, we find stand-ins for the father in the form of a hit man, Jim Morrison, and ultimately the unyielding road takes the place of the body. The Switching/Yard is at once the horizontal world of the birth table where babies are switched, the complex yard of the body where gender routinely shifts and switches, and the actual switching yard of the trains that run the inevitable tracks of this book.
The Switching/Yard is Jan Beatty's unflinching and unapologetic turn, a fierce conflagration of lyric and gorgeously rendered narrative that refuses to give the reader a chance, or reason, to turn away. There is no predictable rooting here, no way to dismiss these stanzas as simple leaps in the evolution of a starkly talented storyteller. Beatty's staunch refusal to bow to the ordinary - her "switching" of gender roles, positions of power or the very idea of home - infuses this volume with a brilliance not open to debate.
- Patricia Smith
When I step inside Jan Beatty's poetry, I know I'm entering a place that is inhabited. I feel her presence in every space - whether it's the ghostly train yard ("the brokenness of a highway dream") or a maximum-security prison. Beatty is a poet who speaks with courage and experience. Her poems are electrifyingly candid. Remember the scene in Mommy Dearest when Faye Dunaway stares down the stuffed shirts of the corporate boardroom? "This ain't my first time at the rodeo." Jan Beatty could have snapped that entire table in half with the raw energy of her words. In the words of R&B vocalist Carl Carlton, "She's a bad mamajama."
- D. A. Powell
In this aptly-titled collection, Jan Beatty zigzags back and forth from mournful balladeer to hopped-up punk, from Pittsburgh smokestacks to Fresno trainyards, "from wreckage to plunder." Full of western vistas, dead-end bars, lying fathers and midnight highways, The Switching/Yard is a ferocious post-post-Beatnik mash-up - part Bukowski, part Wanda Coleman - a barbaric yawp "lost in the big cosmic bath/ where grief and ecstasy meet."
- Campbell McGrath
In her third collection, Beatty travels inside the body to the blood that codes us, moving beyond the language of post-confessionialism and into fourth-wave feminism, challenging notions of the "romantic" and the "brutal" and how they exist within us and between us. Red Sugar asks: how do we talk about the humanity that surfaces in the midst of transformation?
We see woman as recorder of dreams and deeds of culture: one of "Blake's Angels" as a stripper heroin addict who is desired by the woman speaker; Beatty looks at transgression from the inside out in the title poem: "When I was young I was a comet/with an unending shimmering tail,/and I flew over the brokenness below/ that was my life." Blood as code, blood as ultimate storyteller, vault, and carrier of dreams.
Yet there is luminosity in these waves of experience, as Beatty brings us a new way of looking at the ecstatic by standing outside of joy and rendering it alive. There is frenzy and there is a canopy of danger to this American version of the romantic, but it is this mosaic of immediacy that says all authentic experience has power and a bloodlife: its own legacy.
Having mastered the art of fury, Jan Beatty does not merely write a poem, she wrenches it into being, slaps it on the page, applies the flames of her passions, then gentles it into the sweating fleshy sweetness of childhood hungers, longings inspired by loneliness or loss, starkly erotic yearnings - all served in deliciously monstrous pportions, to be savored like a long slow French, that perfect tongue of a kiss that sets the soul on throb.
- Wanda Coleman
What is it about the poems in Red Sugar, Jan Beatty's astonishing third collection, which brings to mind the incomparable music of Miles Davis? "It's just that I can't play like anybody else... I can't do anything like anybody else," Davis insisted. These poems go their own sure way, making their own fierce music, charting "the fluid stages of / empire and slavery" in the human body, yours and mine, as we rehearse our sometimes sorry but always necessary seductions. Unflinching, vulgar, yet oddly welcoming in the "biting joy" of their American riffs, these poems touch us here, and here, and even here.
- Michael Waters
Jan Beatty's Red Sugar is a hard rocking book, a gorgeous sexual book, a fearless way high up and way down deep rollercoaster book of poetry such as you never have read before and will want to read over and over. It is full of strong language and full of love, and I loved and admired it to the hilt.
- Alicia Ostriker
Red Sugar is tantalizing and forbidden, but it is no peepshow. The poems are raw, brash, and full of pluck, yet there is tenderness and honest emotion at the core. Jan Beatty reminds us that there is 'nothing between us and death but one inch.' She takes us to the edge of being and shows us our own quick mortal souls. Yes, there's rock music and prison sex--but do not think for a moment that this book is merely licentious. Beatty casts a broad canopy over human desire, and within the scope of experience, she finds, too, that we are innocent and sublime beings. A rich, rare treat, this Red Sugar.
- D. A. Powell
Boneshaker investigates the idea of the body as cultural machine, shelter, mirage, or home, as it asks the question: Is blood the answer to the question of one's history of longing? Are we to find our answers, our sense of place in history, through the transportation system of desire?
An intermittent motif of urban narratives shapes the body of Boneshaker. In "Machine Shop of Love," desire is called forth through the history of place in the form of "immigrant steelworkers" and rock & roll, arriving in the body of a woman. She's found a member of her "tribe," someone who hears on a cellular level the music that she knows to be her "lifesong," and she answers with sexuality. This poem sets the stage for a different kind of travel that informs all of Beatty's poems, whether it is these ancient city voices running through the body of the speaker, the voice of a dead father transporting her to safety, or check-out girls at the grocery urging her to new desire.
But is the body really all it's cracked up to be - why not just leave it, if only for a while? The title poem breathes a formal quality that Beatty so deftly uses to traverse these fractures. Clipped phrases, slashes, and sections take us to the soliloquy of a young girl learning her body and its place as cultural machine. An unexpected gift of the book occurs when this central speaker's power materializes in her choice of disintegration. Finally, Boneshaker challenges the protected icon of the mother's body in "Dear Mother, Machine," as Beatty rescripts the birth scene with girders and industrial pulleys.
There's yet another note in this lyrical book, embodied in "Aria for the Body" as we see the city of the womb, with a young girl architect designing her living quarters. One of the many surprises of Boneshaker is the wild girl fire that can't be contained as she comes out, screaming in the city of light.
'Wild girl fire' is what Jan Beatty calls it, 'that white-hot tearing' that ignites into art or self-destruction. Poetry against all odds. Poetry as the death-defying act. Poetry as the wild choice for a girl running reckless from the working class. Between odd jobs and odd loves, Beatty writes from the tender heart without flinching.
- Sandra Cisneros
This is slap in the face, wake the fuck up and smell the roses poetry. this is pay attention Bub, or you'll be in a jam poetry; poetry written in defiance of gravity and in the face of all the forces of our own desire that want to drag us down. And underneath all of this wildness is a true love and care for craft, and the anxious, bluesy rhythm of good talk, like a river.
- Bruce Weigl
What is the body? In Jan Beatty's courageous, beautiful, and harsh new
book, Boneshaker, the body is as horrifyingly without boundaries as the cosmos, as constricted as a prison cell. Language, too, is a body. At times it is stitched up tight in the strictures of narrative. At other times, chopped and opened up, not even a sentence survives intact. Restless with complacency and restriction, this book ricochets among a multitude of forms, tones, subjects. Boneshaker is a fierce, intelligent, terrifying interrogation of categories, among them the category of the book itself. Nothing is beyond the reach of this splendid new work./
- Lynn Emanuel
There is a school of poetry where the poems have content, where they communicate, where beauty is not forgotten. It is about work, family, and the lost towns. Grief. Jan is a central figure in this school.
- Gerald Stern
Winner of the 1994 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize
Selected by Dorianne Laux
It is in her keen mental note taking that the real madness - that is, passion - lies. In every poem, she keeps her fury contained but omnipresent, so that it resembles a cornered dog's warning growl, yet she hints at happier possibilities, too.
Raw, energetic, gritty, risky, sexy, and real. . . The power of these short narratives is often cumulative, building a vision of a world seen through the eyes of a wanderer, a woman, a waitress.
- Dorianne Laux
I would shout from my back porch 'Read these poems!' (if I knew you would listen); they are funny and smart, lush and tough-minded, wacky in that particular American wackiness, graceful, burning, alive.
- Bruce Weigl
A fresh voice with rough edges, shamelessly bringing sex, fear, compassion, the hurt you feel for others and the self - and the grit and drive of working class lives - into language.
- Alicia Ostriker
There are so many tributaries connecting Mad River to our everyday world. Jan Beatty isn't afraid to venture into the quicksand that troubles our national psyche at the edge of this millennium. . . [Her] poems speak to us head-on, with courage and a contemporaneous eloquence.
- Yusef Komunyakaa
Beatty's done it again. This is hopping. Fearless, Jan Beatty's endless reach makes us bleed as she powerlifts on the page, shocks short severed roots in the landscape of origin to switchblade keen. Riveting.
- Allison Adelle Hedge Coke
To read the work of Jan Beatty is to experience the sensation of the book itself exploding in your grip. Beatty invents history, a self, and an intimate body-language with rage, precision, and poetic tenderness. A deep, sharp current pushes through these poems. The perfect edge before Beatty leaves us: spent, ravaged, and wet.
- Aaron Smith
Introductory essay to Pittsburgh Revealed, Photographs Since 1850
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997, accompanying book to Carnegie Museum exhibit
for Robert T. Beatty
My father was my hero. He was born in Pittsburgh on April 10, 1916, and lived his entire life here. He had a way of telling a story that created a world that I wanted to live in. He taught me about location, about grounding your listener in a time and place, thirty years before I would hear it in a writing class. He loved to embellish. His stories would begin like this: It was June 11, 1939. It was raining. I'm turning the corner of Wabash and Neptune, right by La Gondola Bar there on the right - that was a rough joint, even in them days . . So I'm turning the corner towards the A&P and . . . Then I would interrupt him with, What time was it? and he would say, It was two o'clock. I would ask who was with him, was he driving, what was he doing there? And he would say, I'm gettin' to that, I'm gettin' to that. And he always did get to it: his stories were alive, moving, filled with adventure, conflict, and hope.
I want to tell you a piece of his story, a piece of mine, hoping to open a small window into some of the worlds that he offered me as a child. Heress how it goes: My father punched his foreman in the mouth one day - he had had enough. Enough of the chiding and reproach, so he hauled off and slugged him. I don't know if it was sunny that day, or if he noticed. All I know is that he walked off the job at the Jones & Laughlin Pittsburgh Works on Second Avenue. He left his job as a sheet inspector, he left the turning and scanning, the huge sheets of steel, the every day for seven years. He left knowing that his young wife was up on the hill in Mercy Hospital, recovering from an operation. He left knowing there was no money to pay the bill.
Somewhere, embedded in this slim piece of story is something about what it is to be a Pittsburgher. My father left the mill that day in 1940 and walked from bar to bar along Carson Street on the South Side. These were the bars that would line up drinks for the steelworkers after their shifts - shots and beers from one end of the bar to another - paid for on the honor system. He borrowed money from the steelworkers he found there, and in turn gave them IOU's in the form of a handshake. That was how they did it then. A man's word for a dollar. My father took the money to the hospital and took my mother home. In those days you had to pay the bill before you left.
What matters to me about this? That my father stood up to his boss; that he wasn't too proud to ask for help; that people gave it; that he made good on his debt.
Pittsburgh is about these basic human values: self-respect, self-reliance, community, honesty, hard work. And yes, it's not that simple.
One of my defining memories of Pittsburgh is as a ten year old, riding down Beck's Run Road through Carrick, to where it hits Carson Street, where the horizon rises up, dark and thick with the hulk of the J & L Mills across the river, and then everything is smoke, majestic grey smoke pumping out and out into the sky. I am riding with my girlfriend and her father in their blue Chevy Impala. Full of earnest, I say something precocious, like,"Look at all that smoke. These mills are so dirty." I remember vividly the action of my friend's father's head spinning around to face me in that vinyl back seat. He says,"When that smoke stops coming-that's when you worry. That's good smoke-that means men are working." I nod my head at this conflict between livelihood and quality of life, suddenly made real. But inside that comment lies the discomfort, complication, terror, desire of that vision of a working steel mill. To say the mills are beautiful, thick forms in the night, that the red-yellow fire takes its piece of the sky with no apology-could certainly be a true statement. But what is that beauty? And how can we talk about it?
How do we enter landscape or let landscape enter us? Barry Lopez, one of our most valuable American writers, talks often about the relationship of"story" to landscape. In his book, Crossing Open Ground, he says:"One learns a landscape finally not by knowing the name or identity of everything in it, but by perceiving the relationships in it." (1) As Pittsburghers, how can we preserve, reclaim, reveal the beauty of our industrial landscape in an honorable, sound way-in a way that doesn't lapse into and remain in the unimaginative, limited lake of nostalgia?
There is no way to speak about the fires exploding from the mill's stacks without seeing the rivers that meet the land, the people who inhabit that land. We need to remember and repeat in our storytelling that it is the Monongahela River that runs past the remaining stacks of the 45" slabbing mill of the Homestead Works, that the furnaces that still stand across the river in Rankin are Carrie #6 and #7. We need to talk about the workers of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. We need to talk about the black workers who were systematically shut out of jobs in the mills of Pittsburgh. This naming is important. It is more important, though, to reveal the network of these relationships in our stories.To exalt the sight of the mill fires to the level of the sublime would be to block out the sight of the burning barges of history, the blight of racism, the armies of Pinkertons, the lost lives of the steelworkers in the Homestead Strike of 1892.
Where should we say the history of Pittsburgh lives? I say that it lives in our continued relationship with the rivers, the mills, the bridges, each other. It lives in our stories about these relationships. I can tell you that I'm still excited every time I drive down Beck's Run Road and see the rising up of the old J&L Coke Works (now LTV Steel) . When I drive down 2nd Avenue in Hazelwood past the same structure, I feel the pull of a different vantage point- the people walking, buses moving, the sight of some boarded-up businesses, the chain link fences at the entrance, the billowing smoke-I experience the mill differently in relation to this sense of neighborhood. And the sight of the huge blue structure(the Eliza Turbo-Generator Building) from the Parkway East near the Oakland exit, however blue they paint it, whatever name they give it, will move me with a sense of longing and reverence. Naming that longing is not so easy.
In 1928 my Aunt Charlotte started working for Bell Telephone in downtown Pittsburgh, when she was eighteen years old. She would take a trolley from Allentown to work each day. She wore white gloves and a hat-that was company policy. Every woman, white gloves and a hat. She said that even in the summertime, if you left the building for lunch, you had to at least carry your gloves.That's also when a loaf of bread cost $.15, an everyday dress cost $3.95, and a formal dress could be had for $6.95. My Aunt worked there for thirty-seven years, through the Great Depression, through World War II, until she retired in the 1960's as a Chief Operator. She talks about those early years: As a toll operator I had to handle everyone's calls. You couldn't dial long distance back then. I was an operator during the Depression. Do you want to know how much I made? $13.50 for a 6 day week. Every third Saturday you'dget a half day off. During Depression years they didn't lay anyone off. People worked 3 days a week or 4. People weren't making long-distance calls. They didn't have the money. Those were tough times. They made me chief operator in 1946 when I was 36 years old. It sounds like I'm blowing my own horn, here. I didn't do anything special.
My father had to drop out of high school to work, even though he'd won a Track scholarship to CarnegieTech(now Carnegie Mellon). It would be forty years later that he'd receive his GED. My mother met my father before the War, when they both worked at McCrory's 5&10 on Fifth Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh. Company policy prohibited employees from dating one another, so they kept their relationship a secret. Years later, my father enlisted in the Navy, working as a shipfitter in the Seabees, fighting in the Asian Pacific. During the War, my mother worked at Vernon's, an assembly plant on the North Side, where she inspected false teeth to send to the soldiers overseas. Like many women, she surrendered her job after the War, making it the last job she held outside of the home. My Aunt Betty also worked at Bell Telephone during the War, and later quit to raise a family of five children.
I bring this up as a way to talk about the relationships of the early Pittsburgh that I knew: where the emphasis was always on getting things done, doing what you had to do to survive, where gender roles were defined according to the need of the country, then reversed after the War, where the"company" rules were paramount. After World War II, my father got a job as a salesman for the American Tobacco Company. His first company car was a shiny black 1958 Ford Fairlane. I remember that the company removed the back seat to prohibit personal use of the car. I remember the red and white card table chairs that my sister and I perched on in the hole of the back seat, how we jerked and balanced our small bodies by grabbing onto the metal door handles, the back of the red vinyl front seat. That conflict again: livelihood and quality of life. Company was not a nice word in our house, but it was everything.
My Aunt Charlotte is 87 years old now, and shares a house with my mother, who is 82. The relationship between them and my Aunt Betty, who is 78, is a daily one. One of phone calls, visits, lunches, church. They have lived within a quarter of a mile of one another for practically their entire lives-in duplexes, in shared houses, on same streets. Their relationship is one of proximity and dailiness, that of an extended family. This kind of extension seems to me not just a generational value, but a Pittsburgh tradition. My Aunt Charlotte lived with and cared for two of her siblings, Mary Louise and Chuck, for years until they died. As is often true, the other Pittsburgh men in that generation have long since died: my Uncle Walt, and my father, who died ten years ago. My father has two brothers, Jack and Dan, who moved to Ohio many years ago, where they still live.
There is another level to my telling you all of this. In 1952 I was born in Rosalia Foundling Home in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. My birth-mother was a woman from Garfield, who was young and poor when she gave me up for adoption. The family I've been speaking of is my adoptive family, the family that has raised and loved me. I say this because the idea of"belonging," of being rooted in some time and place - is everything to me. Perhaps that's why I excitedly devoured my father's stories - I needed a picture to live in, and he was painting it for me. This Pittsburgh with its industrial spaces is a physical landscape to me, but also a psychic one, with its architecture of land/river/mill/house/bridge. To me it is a landscape of sudden rises into a formidable drama of the hulking, empty mill, the rounded hills, the generous span of the bridge, your house, my house, water everywhere. I grabbed and continue to grab at the beautiful hills in Pittsburgh until they spell HOME. I believe I carry the images of Pittsburgh differently because of this - I have built a house in my heart that is Pittsburgh - a kind city that has given me a place to be. In his book, The Poetics of Space, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard talks about the image of house as a poetic image where memory and imagination converge:". . . if I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace." (2) I'm not exaggerating when I say that Pittsburgh has given me this house.
How do we talk about industrial spaces in relation to the construction of sensibility, of aesthetic? How do we talk about the inspirational patterns of "space" that exist in Pittsburgh? Harking back to Lopez's idea of definition through relationship, we must feel adjacency, inhale the contiguous, embrace the adjoining image, wonder what it means to border upon, lie near or close to, we must interrogate our desire for juxtaposition. When we burst through the Fort Pitt tunnels into a wide open vista of light, when we travel beneath the"mountain" of Mount Washington and emerge onto a bi-level span that delivers us to a metropolis of building next to building - somehow these patterns of space must translate to patterns in our internal landscape. In some very real way we are our bridges, the houses on the hills, the three rivers. Does the structure of my language, the way I arrange words on a page, reflect this? For example, do I rely on connecting phrases in my writing because I'm in love with the feeling of connection that bridges in my external landscape offer me? Does the way I tilt my head to look at people, the way I shift my weight to my back foot when standing, have to do with the houses jutting up from the hills, the hills leaning back from the bridges?
There is also the"landscape of the ordinary" - the patterns of relationship that exist in our immediate domestic space. My parents bought a simple ranch house in 1954 for $12,000. In the era of fifties post-war prosperity, they moved from their city neighborhoods of Carrick and Allentown to the edge of the suburbs in Whitehall. But they brought the"city" with them. My Dad used to wear his VFW hat in the house, the one from the Elmer J. Zeiler Post #5012. He would sit in our tiny kitchen with a hunk of Vidalia onion, a bottle of Iron City, a jar of French's mustard, and an open tin of sardines. He would embark on this ritual of biting the onion, dipping the sardine by the tail into the French's, then plunging it headfirst into his cavernous mouth. Then he'd pump an Iron, and start it all again. I remember watching from the dining room as a child, thinking he was eating the heads of things, but loving the passion, the action of it all. In one of my poems, My Father Teaches Me Desire, I describe this witnessing:
. . . And I'm standing here at age 12, learning
that sweet seduction of revulsion/desire,
I'm learning real good that the guy I want
to marry is the one who can do the worst
thing without blinking, a man who eats life
raw, the heads of things - and what else
wouldn't scare him?
There is Pittsburgh in this ritual - in the rawness, the torque and focus of the action, the meeting of style and function. This is the same man who can work in a blast furnace, or stare down a red hot ingot without a flinch. I believe that my witnessing of this event in my"landscape of the ordinary" could be a determining factor in the construction of desire. It's no accident that I married a man who is a native Pittsburgher, even though I wasn't looking for one.
There is a poem written by Maggie Anderson, entitled, The Invention of Pittsburgh. Here is an excerpt:
. . . There were thirty bridges, and thirty highways
followed the rivers. Neighborhoods laced
the hillsides, through detours and freeway
construction around the inclines and concrete tubes,
circuiting the long walls of old mines buried under
the gray Carnegie libraries and the universities,
the closed mills and the steamy slagpiles,
the orthodox churches on the North Side
where they bless the cabbages at Easter. . .(3)
This conjunction of hills and bridges, rivers and mills must play a part in defining us as"Pittsburghers." As a child I loved the slag pile behind Southland Shopping Center in the South Hills, thinking it magical in its largeness - something to be reckoned with. My friend, Paul, talks about going on family outings as a child on weekend nights to Isaly's - to eat ice cream and watch the slag being dumped: It was always a spectacular thing for me and the family. You sit there and have your ice cream and watch the little railroad cars come across the skyline with the twilight in the background. The cars were like teacups on a traincar - when they tipped the car over, what came out was a ball that sort of glowed internally. As it tumbled down the hill, pieces would break off, and a little shot of light, of fire would roll out until the colder outside broke away. It would get brighter and brighter until it eventually hit something and burst open into a shower of red light.
As a troubled teenager I used to walk onto the bridges downtown, climb down onto the underpinnings to find a girder to rest on - and just survey all of it - one step removed from contact with people and cars, but close enough to feel the vibrations from the trucks hitting the seams in the concrete, close enough to glance up and see people crossing the bridge on their way to somewhere. Everywhere was the dome of Pittsburgh light: the grey dreamy half-light, the light behind the screen of the sky. I watched for the currents in the rivers, I found calmness in the movement of it all. I could sit on the yellow Fort Pitt Bridge, look up the Monongahela River and see a crosshatch of bridge/bridge/bridge, a barge, a tugboat, then turn my head toward the rivers meeting at the Point, the Westinghouse sign, the Clark Bar sign, all the while, cars/cars/Mt. Washington looming. I felt like I was IN something - something huge, beautiful, and moving. I didn't have a clue as to what my part was in it . Then and now, where the rivers meet forges a sense of intimacy and possibility, of joining and redirecting energy. The bridges and bridges give me a feeling of reaching across, of opening up to movement, of going somewhere, whether in a literal or metaphorical sense. Commerce, commerce, the largeness of it all. The meeting of the natural world with the industrial: the rivers, hills, sky, bird, dogwood - collide with steel bridges, immense mills, warehouses and railyards. This is where Pittsburgh-style head-down, hard work meets movement and big dreams. This is my town, my space, and it fostered a sense of imagining in me that I believe allowed me to become a writer. These are my crossroads: industrial spaces that suggest the Pittsburgh mentality of "accepting the hand you're dealt, taking pride in your work, staying put" - and the natural world of the "unobstructed view" of rivers and hills, the feeling of invitation through a clear, safe passage. I experience this intersection of rootedness and an urge to wander as a dense point of conflict, empowerment, and ambiguity. As a writer, I can traverse that intersection, I can get out a jackhammer and bust it open, I can reimagine my own life.
When I drive over the bridge on P.J. McArdle Roadway, from 9th Street in the South Side towards the Liberty Tunnels, the city opens up on my right. I'm crossing over the Conrail tracks, I'm seeing the church domes, faraway dome of the Civic Arena, the 10th street bridge, the U.S. Steel Building, square matrix of stadium lights over South High, the branches of trees against the side of the bridge, the old silver footbridge overhead, more houses, river, Boulevard of the Allies - all this in one quick liquid moment. If it's sunset, you can almost feel the gleam from the eight domes of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church, and if it's Friday you can stop and buy perogies, homemade by the church ladies - and on any day you can feel a fullness of shape as you move through this glimpse of Pittsburgh.
When I speak about the houses on the hills of theSouth Side Slopes, of Arlington Heights, Troy Hill, Spring Hill, Mt. Washington, how do I characterize this landscape? Knowing that our visions, perceptions are different, hoping that some ring of familiarity will rise up between the details? Lives bumping into each other, neighborhoods in, around, below these hills - the convergence of nationalities, races, religions - we are not without dissent. This is no perfect place, and it's not useful to pretend it is. Yet, in the midst of it you can still walk on the South Side and see a woman sweeping or even scrubbing her sidewalk. I love the dignity of this, the grace embedded in this act of taking care of what is hers. I wrote a poem entitled, Pittsburgh Poem, that addresses this kind of grace:
On Sarah Street on the South Side,
the old woman still stands with her broom, imagining
the air full of lug and swish from the steelworker's boot,
armies of gray lunchbuckets grace her thoughts
as she sweeps with the part of her that still believes;
sweeps while her sister makes paska and horseradish with red beets,
sweeps away the stains of a dead husband and a disappointing daughter.
She thinks of the dark well of J& L, how it sifted down to nothing,
the mill's hole of a mouth that ate full years of her life,
nights she pulled her husband from Yarsky's bar across the street,
him smiling like a bagful of dimes, half a paycheck spent,
the whole time soot covering their clothes, the car, the windowsills,
like disease, someone else's hands.
She holds tight onto the good times, the new green velour couch,
Saturday walks to the Markethouse for fresh red cabbage and greens,
trips to the Brown & Green store for new T-shirts, South Side windows
brimming taffeta and satin on the way to Mass at St. Michael's,
when the world was gleaming and available for one glorious day.
Now shadows angle across her print housedress and she holds tight
to her broom, hears her sister primping in the kitchen, smells the pea soup
with sauerkraut, the homemade mushroom gravy for perogies, she thinks
of the ten years since her husband died, of her daughter who calls
on holidays, she stands on her concrete lawn,
taking care of something invisible, the listless air,
This "taking care of," this reverence for the ordinary details which then become extraordinary - this is the spirit of Pittsburgh. I love the way that a "domestic" activity such as sweeping becomes the grand domestic act of honoring one's own life, the lives that came before us. So that in a very real way, this physicality enacts a kind of love for the landscape we inhabit, and the relationships of that landscape. These women are strong, protective, resilient. They are committed to their task, to their histories, to their present world.
This spirit of work, of doing the task in front of you, feels so much a part of the Pittsburgh experience - and a part that is so often misunderstood. This spirit, I believe, finds its way into the attitudes and behavior of Pittsburgh natives. I frequently find myself in the position of defending Pittsburgh to out-of-towners, transplants, and even home-grown Pittsburghers. A friend of mine from Vermont recently complained to me about what she identified as the "rudeness" of retail employees in Pittsburgh. As we talked, I realized she was mistaking a "classic" Pittsburgher's attitude of taking care of business, getting the job done - as rudeness. She wanted to be greeted, charmed, perhaps even cajoled toward her purchase. I assured her that was not a Pittsburgh tradition. Maybe we'll approach her once, then give her time and space to look. If she needs further help, we'll be there. You can count on us, but don't expect to be entertained. Do expect random acts of kindness - we'll help you change a tire, lend you a dollar, open your door, maybe even run into a burning house. When it gets down to basics, we'll be there. The charm is in the action of doing - maybe a tougher charm, but it's there. Of course, these generalizations can fail miserably when held up to the light of the particular - but I still stand by the piece of story that I told you at the beginning of this narrative - the part where my Dad punches his foreman in the face, then deals with the repercussions in an honorable manner. So, where is the Pittsburgh in that story? It's in the telling. We bring what we know to bear on what we see. We feel that knowing in our bodies, our actions, our choices. Here is where we name our longings, where we dismantle nostalgia, where we shed light on both the beauty and the horror of the burning orange skies of our city: we do it by telling our stories, letting the relationships that have informed our lives illuminate the landscape of the present. So what do we do when we're faced with the University of Pittsburgh Center for Biotechnology & Bioengineering, on the site of the old J&L Pittsburgh Works? We tell a story Here's one for you: I was walking past the site of the old Eliza blast furnaces, down on Second Avenue. Did you know they tore them down in the early '80's? It was two o'clock. It was raining. . .
(1) Barry Lopez, Crossing Open Ground, "Landscape and Narrative," Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1980, p. 64
(2) Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston, 1994, p. 6
(3) Maggie Anderson, A Space Filled With Moving, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1992, p. 45
(4) Jan Beatty, Mad River, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1995, p. 11
Thanks to: Mildred Beatty, Charlotte Thoma, Betty Boone, Dan Beatty, Jean Beatty, Jack Beatty, Laurie Graham, Don Hollowood, Maggie Anderson, Judith Vollmer, Madison Brooks, Paul Baumgartner, Tamara DiPalma, Perry Petrone, Cynthia Miller, Dave Demarest.