Brian Simoneau.jpg

Poetry from Brian Simoneau

followed by Q&A

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.

 

 

Morning Mass

(Lowell, Massachusetts)

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.

 

 

Taking Flight

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&A

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.