EILEEN TABIOS Engages
WORK IS LOVE MADE VISIBLE: Poetry and Family Photographs by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
(West End Press, Albuquerque, NM, 2009)
Two strengths stand out for me in Jeanetta Calhoun Mish’s WORK IS LOVE MADE VISIBLE: the first is her ability to textually capture Oklahoma diction, and the second is how her poems powerfully manifest how things are not always what they seem. These two attributes serve well the nature of her book: delving into her family history or, to quote the publisher, offering “an exploration of her family’s working class background in a singing tribute to the toils of the soil and the pangs of poverty.”
The book opens strong with perhaps my favorite poem in the book, “Rosasharn Reports from California in the 21st Century.” I love this poem for its unexpected nudge at John Steinbeck who wrote, of course, on early 20th century—including Great Depression—California life. To write of her family history is to write, too, of this same period covered by Steinbeck, so that one can only appreciate Mish’s confident (feminist) take:
The first thing I need to tell you-all
is that I am not the same girl
you saw last in that book of Mr. Steinbeck’s
Times have changed and so have I
I’ve been taking classes at the open campus in Davis—
literature classes, since I figured I knew
a little something about literature.
But all those other students want to talk about
is that near to last scene that they say
is full of Madonna symbolism.
You know the one I mean.
At this point, I am grinning as I continue my read into the third and fourth stanzas:
And the teacher pointed out to me how
Tom is the Christ-figure and how I am the virgin-figure.
I was a bit discomfited by them talking that way
but they assured me it was all about symbolism
and not about religion.
They talk too about the virgin-whore dichotomy
but I tole them right quick I wasn’t no whore
Anyway, they say I’m quite the character
even though Mr. Steinbeck’s “virile, realist style”
is “no longer viable.” Wouldn’t you just know it?
Plain talk is out of fashion.
Well, while I’m spoutin’ off about plain talk
I best be doin’ some of my own.
To tell it to you straight,
I ain’t changed that much
and neither have the times.
Ah, yes – the dissonance between “plain talk” and academic speak. The above four stanzas, as well, illustrate how I assume (since I personally don’t really know but Mish is an Oklahoma poet) Oklahomans speak.
In addition, within these first four stanzas, Mish is able to show how times have changed but times have also stayed the same—a balancing act mastered by Mish to her poems’ advantage. For “Rosasharn Reports from California in the 21st Century,” poverty remains and its effects remain constant; the poem continues:
I been travelin’ up and down the central valley
and I wrote out a postcard that said’
“having a great time, wish you were here”
but I tore it up ‘cause I wasn’t quite sure it tole the truth.
Most of the white folks livin’ in the valley are Okies,
two or three generations removed.
But they seem to have forgot where they came from;
they’re all a-votin’ republican
and supportin’ strike-breakers and refusing a
helpin’ hand to those Mexicans working
in the same fields their grandparents hoed.
Tomorrow I’m headin’ over to San Francisco.
I hear the folks there are concerned about the workers
and about the pollution that’s kicked up by all these cars.
They got programs to help out the poor kids
and programs to help out the sick people
and programs to make the neighborhoods pretty.
I met some fine people from there so
don’t put too much stock in what you hear.
It’s true that some of them are funny, well, you know what I mean…
but the only thing different about them is who they love
and right now, sittin’ here in Stockton
watchin’ whole families sleep in the park,
I figure we could use a lot more love and a lot more programs
and lot less hate and intolerability.
It’s useful, especially if one is to delve into any type of history, to possess the ability to comprehend and then show how conditions differ from the impressions they offer in public. Many of the poems testify to the need to look beyond public veils. A powerful example is “for my brother” which consists of two parts. Part 1, subtitled “what I wrote,” details basic biographical details of her brother: “Phillip Wayne Inman passed away Friday night in his home in Lewisville, Texas. He was 47 years old….” But Part 2 offers a startling, powerful, dissonance to surface reality. Here’s an excerpt:
2. what I didn’t write
truth is my brother’s life never really got started. berated, beaten, broken by our stepfather. escaped to the sanctuary of our grandparents home bewildered and betrayed. in high school he took a vo-tech certificate in diesel mechanics but couldn’t find a job. so soldier it was and he was good at it, the books full of commendations and those military college hours he thought would help him when he looked into going to college later but funding for GI bill went down and all those hours meant nothing to the university, he’d have to start over. but anyway back in the army his childhood terrors chased him around and into the bottle and the army sent him to rehab once twice three times then said we’ll give you an honorable if you’ll go quietly four years before you’re eligible for retirement. same with the truck driving jobs, the stockroom jobs the janitor jobs but not with the crane operator job he was sober his life was looking up. it paid well but he hadn’t been there long enough for insurance when he had the stroke at 43…
The prose poem wrenchingly goes on until Mish ends the poem with
I wrote then as I’m writing now when what I really want to do is cry. O bubba. O Phip. Who now to tell me “aw, hell, sis—we’ve been through worse and lived.”
Either way: whether saying it as it is or saying it as it doesn’t seem to be, the poet is required to see what is behind as well as what is in front. Mish’s vision performs as it should so that the poet’s investment “in the bones and the blood” successfully “wring[s] life from the ashes and dust” to make many moving poems.
And because Mish's poems show that love can clarify as much as it can cloud vision, I’d like to leave you with the book’s title poem:
Work is Love Made Visible
After working all day, at home or at the garment factory
or taking care of her mother or her grandchildren,
after cooking dinner and cleaning up the kitchen
my granny would uncover her sewing machine
and stitch our family together.
Her love for me is a green paisley dress with a matching purse
constructed when I was eight and tucked into bed in the
the sewing machine humming into my dreams.
Her love for me is a 1970s high fashion three-piece suit:
bellbottom pants, vest, blazer with broad lapels
made of faux suede pathwork I orange and brown.
Even now, I can recite every article of granny’s handiwork,
proclaim the delight of something made just for me,
sing the alchemy of love and labor,
testify that after working all day, day after day,
my granny would sit at her sewing machine
and attire me in vestments of love.
In vestments of love. Investments of love. Through the work of these poems, love, too, is made visible.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor. An exception is made for the relational elations of ORPHANED ALGEBRA as that was co-written with another author, j/j hastain--and it is reviewed by T.C. Marshall in this GR #20 issue. She is also pleased to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her books. Her 2013 book, THE AWAKENING was reviewed by Tom Beckett at L'Amour Fou; by Amazon Hall of Famer Reviewer Grady Harp on Amazon and elsewhere; by Joey Madia at Literary Aficionado; by Edric Mesmer at Yellow Field; by Zvi Sesling at Boston Area Small Press & Poetry Scene; and by jim mccrary and his cat Iris at Babaylan Poetics. Her 2007 book, SILENCES: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF LOSS, was also recently reviewed by Nicholas T. Spatafora in Litter Magazine.