Greg McBride on David Salner

Working Here by David Salner.  Rooster Hill Press, 2010.


We read novels, memoirs, and poems to be transported, to revel in language well deployed, to glimpse the inner life of another or to get another's take on common experience, so to more fully appreciate our world; however, for many readers, a writer beguiles most especially when taking us to another country, experience of which the reader has no experience, and into stories we could not imagine ourselves.


It seems safe to say that the great majority of those who read and write poetry in America today can claim de minimis, if any, extended participation in the blue collar world of overbearing overseers, mechanical time clocks, daily fast food on the run from one job to another, layoffs and unemployment as the economic cycle bottoms out, and so on—that world of physical risk amid immense and loud machinery and the employees' resulting work-scuffed and hardened hands, greasy nails, worn and balky bodies old before their time.  Steve Scafidi and Bob Hicok come to mind as exceptions.  Another is David Salner, a current (three poems in Innisfree 12) and previous contributor to this journal.


Salner's most recent book of poems, Working Here (winner of the 2010 Rooster Hill Press poetry book competition), arises from, and draws us into, the 25 years he worked as an iron ore miner, furnace tender, and laborer after earning his MFA at the University of Iowa.  Just as Brian Turner, in Here, Bullet, gives us poems out of the Iraq War, Salner bears witness to an unfamiliar world, rendering it vividly and honestly, without histrionics, utterly authentically. 


It's an uncertain world of punching in and punching out of work in junkyards, magnesium furnaces, and steel foundries, of pulling the midnight shift as a welder, of waiting for call-backs while drawing unemployment when the mine or dock or mill work dries up in Arizona, Utah, West Virginia, Idaho, or Maryland.  In "Waterfront Memoir," he captures in two quick strokes the physical and psychic loads carried by the laborer:


I scrape out ancient oil tankers,

breathe the fumes all night until I'm dizzy.

I can barely climb the steel ladders

slick with condensate. . . .


"Watch out for the winch operator,"

a voice crowds in.  "He'll drop a load on you

and forget it by lunch."


In "First Check," he is a kid of fifteen mesmerized by his first paycheck:


I work with Sonny and Mac.

We're dripping with sweat by coffee break.

Sonny gives me the blow-by-blow

for every fight he's ever started.

Mac shows me a handshake with skin.


It's a world haunted by the specters of easy violence—both on the job and in relations among fellow workers—and financial contingency, as in "Minnesota Shutdown":


. . . I snuck out

before he could serve the foreclosure notice.

I sold my canoe, stuffed my Plymouth Satellite

with everything else, headed down Route 35

to West Virginia, to a new power plant

where I swept fly-ash from concrete decks

around shiny, magnificent turbines.  They spun so fast

a stillness overcame the motion.


Even the car, the Satellite, furthers the sense of the marginal and tangential, driving home the speaker's subjection to economic forces beyond his ken.  David Salner is a storyteller at heart whose poems are redolent with the power of understatement and close observation, as in "Morning in Utah":


I grab my safety equipment

and head for the building I work in—

a respirator hanging from my index finger

like a dead reptile.


When I press it to my face,

it gives me the sour kiss

of rubber put away wet.


These are elemental poems, close to the earth and man's struggle with it, on it, and in it, and with each other.  What I like is the common humanity on display in Working Here.  Salner does not glorify these workers as somehow saintly in their authenticity.  They fight, scheme, and suffer, as well as display an occasional selflessness, like the poetry writing/reading rest of us, though the stakes seem higher.  Salner's lines have the taste and smell of truth: "the sour kiss / of rubber put away wet."

Greg McBride is the editor of Innisfree.



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Miles David Moore

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