Ray McManus. Punch. Spartanburg: Hub City Press, 2014. 72 pp. $15.00, paper.
From the cover photo to the opening epigraph, we know that this is a book devoted to the life of a working man. Punch is a distinctly American book in that way: it contains the poetry of a man destined to change water in a field, to wrestle with barbed wire, to know the hours put into the job because there’s a piece of cardstock with his name on it as well as the days of the week, which he punches every morning and then again every night.
Because McManus is going for the working-man’s poetry, and because the poems have in them the feel of the Southern country, some of what you would expect to see in here does appear: trailer houses; heavy drinking; surly employers; preternaturally gifted mechanics; poverty; and the slow decline towards violence, both natural and imposed. And violence shines out in every poem, whether self-inflicted or put on by another element. However, when McManus moves into these realms, it is his fresh take on them that makes the poems shine:
We were lost, hungry, and hopeless, creeping toward the pipelines in a
’78 Buick Regal with Big Star on the radio, and Todd had salvation in his
pocket, just no way to bring it, and there was panic until we found a bible
and thumbed our way toward a middle passage and tore a page out. We
rolled with it, and the glory of it shined against the dashboard, and for
every word that could’ve been spoken there could’ve only been one way
to say it when the cloud broke for the opened window. Amen.
McManus can switch from prose poems to short, enjambed lines, and he still manages to present mundane tasks in a fresh and exciting way:
Houses are set in rows
like teeth with yellowed
veneers and the men
wake up to clean their yards
while their wives peer
through bent slant blinds
to make sure they stay
on task. And they never do.
from “Somewhere in the Middle”
The feeling of falling into the next clause in the sentence, the next image, keeps the reader engaged and surprised, and this allows these received images of the Southern lifestyle to appear new to us:
Christmas Eve, 1987, blown
in an F-150, and no one told you
that this is about as good
as you’re going to get.
from “How to Add a Porch to a Trailer”
Yes, we have pot treated as a sacrament, yellowed-out teeth, elderly couples with no real clue about their attitudes or desires for one another, and a blowjob going down in a Ford. These images are all part and parcel of the new Southern Gothic, where the mystery and apprehension and the conflation of religious piety and bigotry of the old Southern Gothic (think McCarthy, O’Connor) have moved aside for the tension that exists within a Southerner who works hard to survive. The old Southern Gothic version of a character wrestling with their morality has become a character who spends most of his free time steadily anaesthetizing himself against the world in which he moves.
The strength of McManus’s poems lies in his ability to use slim, specific diction and line breaks, coupled with a flourish—like a spark from a welder’s arc—that eventually mold into a larger, ever more significant approach to existence:
This time I won’t fall in love
with the sound bark makes
as it flips in chunks
across the lawn. I won’t pay
attention to sap or sand or imagine
I’m in the top of the tree
screaming that I’ll jump
if I have to.
from “Dog Box”
Because the characters speak mainly of things such as ignition times and fingers getting the chop from an axing accident, it is in the moments when our speaker steps forward, however hesitatingly, to the front of the rig and stages an impromptu love poem on the viscosity of oil, that we become witnesses to a singular and convincing Southern voice.
When the speakers have moments of poetic furor—when the scene or action around them becomes nearly unbearable with meaning or the potential for meaning—the poems move from Imagism, from Southern, into something much larger, something butting against the universal.
Each cubicle folds
into the next until I rise,
and it’s Friday, and no one
has the guts to speak
of overtime. I count
the steps twice and brush
by papers on the bulletin
board. They stand at
attention and salute me
one after another as they
should. As they should.
For my money, this moment in “General” is the best example of how good McManus can be when he’s firing on all cylinders. What I love about this moment is how McManus gets across the frustration of repetitive tasks, of having to work surrounded by situations that don’t make any sense outside of the dictum: things go this way because that’s how things have always gone. And this approach allows him, at times, to distill his frustration, his respect, his longing and his ambition into the single clear image of a man walking down a hall on a Friday, worried about overtime and asking his boss for it, and seeing the pamphlets flip up in such a way he might as well be saluted.
The major themes of the book revolve not so much around the setting of the South, or of the working-class poor, but on the speaker’s ability to comprehend and empathize with the feeling of a person lost in the mundane hallways of his everyday existence, trying to find a beauty and a meaning within it.
A boy behind me came
in with them, mud falling off his boots. I want to loosen my tie and tell
him how much I miss it.
from “Why You Got Nothing Coming”
Because of the tension created by his ability to empathize, coupled with his inability to or lack of desire to go back and connect as the poet he is now with the boy he was then, any sort of hagiographic tic towards the life he used to live is disrupted. And that’s key to the book. The emotional distance of the speaker is compounded by his decisions—to become a poet, to stop working the fields—and that decision process allows him to keep one foot in both worlds. We can trust this speaker because he isn’t there anymore, though he spent plenty of time living that life and wanting out. When he looks back, it isn’t with awe and an inflated sense of self-importance; instead, it’s with a critical and poetic eye.
A slim collection—coming in, with notes and everything, at 62 pages—the key description to take into reading this collection is brevity. This is a poet who doesn’t waste words, who doesn’t have the time, the inclination, or the disrespect to the reader to waste them. There is only so much working time in any given day, and McManus makes the most of each moment, letting the white space do the rest. To show just a few moments:
To keep moving, one simply
needs to cut back the drag.
That’s what you are for.
from “Performance Evaluation”
Set your porch on fire
and invite me in.
I won’t mind
if you call me boy
or ask me what I think
about the heat
as if I could do anything
about it, as if I wanted to.
from “The Middle-Aged Housewife Watching Me Rake Her Yard”
Most poems in the collection keep a short line, rely heavily on enjambment, and every one of them (not counting the “Dog Box” sequence) runs only one page long. When McManus gets away from his tight line and lets the sentence play out, his voice becomes much more lyrical and, in many ways, devastating:
After pulling pallets, you don’t mind slinging a few cases of lunchmeat
over the counter—especially if you’re still high from break. You’ve been
trained to pull dates, to rotate, to look past head cheese, to let the cooling
fans drown out the soft-spoken customers digging through the packages
The prose line also allows him to dip into the surreal:
Every day is an open mouth choking on painted paper. Every day is a
trailer and a cactus. Every day is a note asking for something back. Every
day is rapture. Every day is cartoon complete.
from “Our Daily Bread”
There’s everything in this book to give you all the right in the world to stamp “Southern Gothic” on it in big, drippy, O’Connor-y letters on the front cover. Here is faith and mystery, sin and elbow grease, cheap drugs and time clocks. Everything is at stake, though nothing seems to matter that much to the rest of the world.
These are poems about the way this speaker has lived his life. It’s day-to-day. It’s a time clock. It’s the memory of men named Gus. It’s about time. And somebody, some foreman, is checking his watch from the opening until the end of it, and you’re being watched.