June 30th, 2008

Review by Karen J. Weyant (email)


by Lisa Beatman

Ibbetson Street Press
25 School Street
Somerville, MA, 02143
ISBN 978-0-6151-8124-0
61 pp., $14.95

In her forward to Manufacturing America: Poems from the Factory Floor, Lisa Beatman explains that in 2001 she was hired to teach basic skills to workers at a paper and printing company. For those of us who teach at-risk students, we know their hardships and sympathize, but Beatman goes one step further than just sympathizing. Chronicling her students' stories, Beatman, in quick poetic glimpses, records their past lives in other countries, their current struggles, and even their possible futures.
As anyone can imagine, the stories found in this slim book are varied. In Rainbow we see the past of Juan, a fisherman who "cast his net/ on a rainbow lake, testing the patched weave" and we see the present: his life in a factory with "calloused hands, tattooed with paper cuts." We see Nina in First Shift who "puts her face/ back on at 5:00 am" her makeup routine complete with "mascara on thick" and "watermelon/ tint to her lips." And we see the maneuvering of family routines in Swing Shift, where "Alicia leaves the house at 2:00/ Guillermo gets home at 4:00/ Gracias a Dios / his mama can watch/ Manuelito in between." These, of course, are only a few stories found in this collection; as with real life populations of blue collar workers in the United States, their stories and memories are as diverse as the population itself.
As with any good book (poetry or otherwise), I turned the last page still hoping for more. In such collections as this one, there are always openings, always voices still to be heard, always stories still to be told, but it's been a long time since I have felt such a gap. Beatman's book leaves many questions unanswered, which is perhaps why I felt such a loss. For example, in Parking, we experience a suggested worker layoff with opening lines "The lucky ones punched in on Monday/ one by one, all on time." This poem also depicts the cafeteria and parking lot on that same day:

Maria sat in the cafeteria
next to an empty chair.
She finally got a shady spot
where her '96 Chevy wouldn't cook.

Then, there are the closed factories depicted in GoodBones: "The condos on the river side/ will go for what, half mil?/ Wonder what they used to make here-/ car parts, blue jeans, envelopes." Certainly, the parking lot spaces, the empty spots in the cafeteria, the decay of urban factories are all strong images that leave us wondering about portraits not recorded, the life stories not being told.
But finally, there is the question directed towards the poet herself, in the haunting Copyright, a poem that depicts the burden of telling another's story:

Leyla Chang invades my dreams
strips the white sheet
from my body
plucks the pen from
my twitching fingers
What's this she says
about you writing my life?
since when did I
become a page number
in your table of contents?

And this is why, ultimately, Beatman's work is such a success. Certainly, she has not presented a collection that is "groundbreaking"--other poets have written about the physical and emotional struggles of the blue collar world. But Beatman's book is very much a reflection of the factory world today. As she herself notes, "Sadly, manufacturing is dying in America. Owners, seeking lower labor costs and fewer regulations, are relocating plants, ironically, to many of the developing countries their workers came from." With both the recorded stories and the unanswered questions, Beatman echoes the uncertainly of her students' futures, and perhaps, all of our futures as well.


Karen J. Weyant is a 2007 Fellow in poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts and her most recent work can be seen in Slipstream, The ComstockReview and Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas. She has work forthcoming in Pennsylvania English and the minnesota review. She teaches at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, New York.




Note: Reviews may not necessarily reflect the opinions of RATTLE's editors and staff.