Reviewed by Gregg Mosson
by Patric Pepper
35 Circle View Drive
Elysburg, PA 17824
2010, 60 pp., $10
In Greek mythology, the iron-worker god Hephaestus walked around as a brawny, hulking and deformed figure, yet hammered out the finest metalwork and weaponry in the known world. Out of heat, fire, and dirty toil, he forged the brilliant Shield of Achilles, as described in detail in Homer’s Iliad. The modern shield, depicted by British poet W.H. Auden in his post-World War II poem, “The Shield of Achilles,” bitterly showcases a modern wasteland. Patric Pepper, of Washington, D.C., and also Cape Cod, has achieved a startling feat himself: turning his 32-year career as an industrial engineer into compelling and contemporary metrical poetry in his expanded chapbook. Zoned Industrial is not heroic, like the divine shield in Homer. Nor is it bitterly disappointed, as in Auden. Rather Zoned Industrial offers a pragmatic view of a professional navigating the compromises and concerns of modern American life.
Pepper’s focus in his poems on broader contexts as well as exacting detail make his journey told here personal as well as ring true to any reader who’s experienced the hodgepodge of the workplace (humorous, random, insightful, fortunate, and annoying). Each episode in Pepper’s engineering career—from production to meetings to commuting to lunchtime to Sunday respite—appear in well-crafted metrical poetry. The rhyme mostly sounds contemporary. Forms are pleasingly varied. Simply put, Zoned Industrial will appeal to non-readers and readers of crafted poetry alike through its smooth form and well-observed common subjects.
In Zoned Industrial’s title poem, the bare “December woods” rustle and glint outside the factory, reminding the poet of “non-durable goods/ of the non-manned/ natural land.” These woods might indict the industrial factory—yet the “oaks rock and creak,/ and all but speak.” In the end, nature is silent. Nature does not “speak.” Yet the “rock and creak” of the oaks “all but” spark the human conscience to reflect on the disharmony between nature’s grace and our man-made clatter. Zoned Industrial frames this dilemma in poem after poem. However, the poems never take a stance.
Later in a poem “Landscape,” which takes place in a “midnight dumping ground” of woods “behind the industrial park,” the poet reflects, in the end, that he should praise “such gritty grace,” because “nature is not bitter.” There is a certain truth to that remark. As the doves whirl in “Landscape,” and the poet looks up to the sky, the poet recalls that nature, however much “junk” is dumped in the woods, is larger, and still permits a glimpse of grace. Keep looking, says this poetry, at least implicitly. Don’t get swallowed up. The chapbook as a whole, by continually featuring unspoiled nature and the clear blue sky in contrast to American consumer-industrial culture, frames the issue as tension, not conclusion. Pepper’s silence is not as assured as Frost’s, for instance, who in poems like “Christmas Trees,” turns his back on the mercantile world. Nevertheless, “Provide, Provide.”
Zoned Industrial focuses on this tension throughout the journey of the chapbook’s everyman-poet speaker. In “So,” the speaker gets a promotion only to find his first encounter with the boss is comically vulgar. Yet the speaker has been promoted—pay and all—and, “So what,” he says, “So what.” In “The Bosses,” the speaker notes that they are all “just five guys thrown together.” Yet the speaker later remarks, “I love these guys/ but I would never tell them.” He tells us, though, in the poem. As for the tension between nature and industry, this everyman-poet is not romantic; he does not see himself as a world-changer, and chooses to live a professional life without giving up his ability to appreciate nature or have empathy (see “Sunday Poet,” “Blue Skies,” and “Idle Thoughts at Lunchtime”). In the end, the poet is an outsider who needs the world far more than the average person needs a poet.
Personally, this position falls short for me. A poetic sense, for instance, probably animates our green builders and environmental entrepreneurs. Each person can support this more harmonic industrial direction with purchasing power. In “An Invitation to the Factory”—a poem that sums up an entire era—Pepper implies what he does not conclude: Society is tending where we want it to. I quote in full:
Come have a look.
See how the world is made.
Put down your manufactured book.
We’re building circuit boards
for the human hordes.
They’re spun from sand and ore and oil,
your pleasure the measure of our toil.
Come see the crew
bang out their shift tonight,
the managed hullaballoo
here in the thundering plant.
Don’t say you can’t
Please. Please, see your world is made.
Come see your orders are obeyed.
I like this poem. First, it astutely places the force behind the existence of factories, industrial life, and consumer culture on us all. Second, as anyone who has worked in a factory or office knows, this man-made world offers a mixed blessing. In Antler’s excellent poem Factory (City Lights Books), factories are our self-devastation. In Patric Pepper’s “Invitation,” the blessing is an implied appreciation of productive power. This appreciation is implied, I believe, in the end of “Invitation” where the poem praises, and warns, that we make our own world.
Technically there is much to admire here. First, the poem offers intriguing verbal music through varied, short punchy lines. The first stanza surprises with the rhyme change from B to C, when one expects A B A B. (The poem rhymes A, B, A, C, C, D, D). The lower sound of “boards” / “hordes” in the C-rhyme couplet shifts the tone to ominous. Further, that couplet comes in the middle rather than at the end of the poem, against expectation. These counter-rhythms help make effective metrical poetry. I also enjoy the precise description of the factory: “the managed hullabaloo/ here in the thundering plant.” Four well-chosen words communicate a huge scene. If there is any technical flaw in “Invitation,” it’s the last two lines. They don’t sound as contemporary. Maybe the phrase “your pleasure the measure” is archaic.
Raintown Review editor Quincy R. Lehr has noted how much new formalist work—American metrical poetry written since the 1980s—suffers from a conservative nostalgia, a “when Rome was Rome, and Greece was Greece” mentality for some yearned-for bygone era. Patric Pepper’s Zoned Industrial, in contrast, speaks colloquially in meter about today. It addresses these subjects with consideration and intelligence. It is a confessional book that offers a window to the world.
In conclusion, Zoned Industrial is one of the best collections of contemporary formal verse that I’ve read. While the first half of the book is strongest, this 40-page chapbook avoids a lot of filler in today’s ever-expanding full-length collections, and presents solid and sometimes startlingly good poems, page upon page.
Gregg Mosson is the author of two books of poetry, Questions of Fire (Plain View, 2009) and Season of Flowers and Dust (Goose River, 2007). His poetry, literary criticism, and reviews have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, The Potomac Review, Smartish Pace, Unsplendid, Loch Raven Review, and previously in Rattle. He lives in Maryland with his family.