My Father’s Garage as Resting Place
Ivy crawls up cracks in concrete walls
I scraped and painted every summer. Built
in the forties and meant to hunker
against the worst New England can give,
its windows frame the river and its willows.
It’s easy to see why my father bought it—
what better place for his big bones
and broad shoulders and hands like granite
to get run down by eleven-hour days?
The cops used to sit in the office, coffee
and donuts, smoking and shooting the shit:
hockey games and heart attacks, kids away
at school, the boobs on a beauty walking by.
Now they park at the edge of the lot, watch
for traffic running the red across the bridge.
The gas pumps are gone and the new owners
hung their sign above the double bays.
Next door the redbrick church is empty
almost every day, the ivy spreading
to its wrought iron fence. There’s always
a steady parade of cars, always the river
passing, winter always on its way,
but weeping willows are the first to bear leaves
in spring and the last to let them fall.
Sunday sunlight washes over families holding hands
like paper dolls. Before breaking bread, heads bend
to pray: eyes closed, lips moving in union with the priest’s
whose arms unfold as if to grasp the holy air.
Candles lift whispers of smoke toward heavens
that hover somewhere above a vaulted ceiling.
Faith forgotten by Monday morning: heads
again hang low; hard voices mutter
curses against brothers, bosses, the blind sun
scorching the sky; empty hands reach out to find
what’s left to grasp. Every day they handle hammers
and wrenches, shovels, brushes, brooms. Every day
consumes them, flames of foundries and factories
and their own hands stoke the furnace, the sweat
sharp on blistered skin. Every day wears down
their bodies—crumpled pages, torn to pieces,
tossed by a wind that muffles prayers and pleas
and cries for love or something like it, mercy.
He leans against an empty oil drum to smoke
as traffic crawls beside the river. The day
drops behind the empty mills, its shadows
stretched across a picture of his kids.
The bell rings him out to another car
before he gets to finish his cigarette.
He rubs his hands on his Dickies, fingers
burning from the cold. He curses, hustles
car to car, checking oil and washing windows
for strangers who thank him but don’t look up.
When he sleeps he sees his kids taking
flight, wings unfolding, eyes fixed on the hills
past the city limits; they never look down
at the growing pile of ash. He’s always liked
the smell of gas, how it stings his nose, stays
in his clothes, soaks his skin. How easily he’d light—
sparks from a dragging tailpipe, a flicked cigarette—
how high the flare, how quickly he’d burn up.
Brian Simoneau’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Boulevard, Cave Wall, The Collagist, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, North American Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Waccamaw, and elsewhere. His work is also included in Two Weeks: A Digital Anthology of Contemporary Poetry. He lives in Boston with his wife and their daughters.
Q: “Every day wears down their bodies,” you write, celebrating people who make a daily sacrifice for their daily bread. In a time when “blue-collar work” seems to be disappearing and devalued, can you talk about its role in American life?
A: I don’t know that “blue-collar work” is disappearing, but it certainly has become devalued. The work will always be there, as will the worker—as long as we drive cars, there will be someone skilled at fixing them; as long as we work in classrooms and offices, there will be someone who spends the night cleaning them—but this type of work is becoming less visible in our culture. It’s been pushed to the margins of our daily experience. We don’t see it. Of course, some of us probably don’t want to see it: to see the hard work being done, to see how our clothes and computers and food are produced, would be to acknowledge the economic inequity that touches so many areas of American life. So we ignore it: we send manufacturing jobs overseas, we stigmatize manual labor, and we embrace a popular culture of celebrity and wealth. In my own life, there was no ignoring the importance of work. With grandparents who worked in factories, with a father who fixed cars six days a week, I was reminded everyday that almost everything in my life was a result of someone else’s hard work. That sort of awareness doesn’t play a very big role in American life these days, but it should.
Q: What kinds of jobs have you held, and what have they contributed to your poetry?
A: Growing up, I helped out at my father’s auto repair shop whenever I could. When I was young, I mostly cleaned up and watched him work; later, I collected the old parts and drove to the scrap yard. I’ve pumped gas. I’ve worked as a custodian at an elementary school—waxing floors, fixing furniture, painting walls, washing windows. I was a busboy for about two weeks. During college I was an attendant at the art museum on campus. Since college, I’ve worked as a teacher in lots of different settings—a university writing program, private high schools, a YMCA daycare center. I suppose all of these jobs have contributed to my poetry, though it’s hard to say exactly how. Like any shared experience, each introduced me to others whose lives and worldviews helped shape my own. Each gave me time to indulge my imagination; waiting for the next car to pull to the pump, or passing a mop up and down hallways, I’d let my mind wander, make up songs, invent silly games to pass the time. Most importantly, I think that watching my dad at work—and then learning other jobs on my own—taught me to pay attention, to be aware of how small details contribute to getting a job done, to be perceptive and engaged with the world around me. Of course, as a teacher, I get to read and talk about literature every day, every word I encounter somehow filtering into my own writing.
Q: There is a strain of the pastoral in your work—the weeping willow, the river, the ivy. How do you see the persistence of the natural in a man-made environment?
A: I grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, a city known for its mile-long stretch of redbrick mills and its complicated system of canals and locks. The whole place was an attempt to use nature for human needs and desires, to control natural forces for human gain. It worked for a while, and then it didn’t. By the time I was born, the mills were empty and crumbling, the canals mostly stagnant. The Merrimack River, however, follows the path it always has—like the lilacs growing from Frost’s cellar holes in “Directive” or Whitman’s dirt in our boot-soles. Even in this highly engineered environment, it’s the natural that persists. To really know the world around me, then, and to fully understand my place in it, I must accept that the natural—not human culture, and certainly not my humble contributions to it—is what lasts.