Reviewed by Chris Faatz
I love anthologies. I love their heft, their breadth, and the way a good one opens the imagination to new vistas. M. L. Liebler's Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking out the Jams is a good case in point.
Published by the always innovative Coffee House Press, Working Words brings together fiction, poetry, song lyrics, and nonfiction pieces in a spectacular exploration of the terrain of work: what it means, how it forms us, how it impacts our relationships with one another and with the world, and how we've chosen over the years to respond to it in both personal and overtly political ways. It's a huge book -- 563 pages -- and it could be a lot longer, as Liebler makes clear in his very useful and non-academic introduction.
The voices offered up by Working Words are legion. Many of them will come as no surprise: Philip Levine, Dorianne Laux, Woody Guthrie, Ed Sanders. One of the glories of this book, though, is that it ropes in authors who aren't well known outside of certain small circles or a given geographic region. There are loads of people here that I'd never heard of before, yet whose work impacted me deeply, and the book includes copious notes on each contributor, making it easy to follow up on those that prove especially noteworthy.
Working Words leans distinctly and unapologetically to the political left. Ed Sanders, Wobbly Carlos Cortez, and Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day all speak to the inequalities of our political and economic systems, and of the reality and history of working-class resistance. Heroes are presented -- Eugene Debs, Peter Maurin, Joe Hill -- and epochal events are remembered. But, Working Words goes much deeper than that. It champions the workaday, the humdrum, the tedious, going a long way toward finding and articulating meaning and pride in our lives on the factory floor, on the building site, or at the restaurant counter. Take, for example, this poem by Gary Metras:
It got to twenty-seven below that winter,
which is harsh for Massachusetts,
even as far west as the hills near Pittsfield.
I mixed stucco that week, by hand.
The mixing bed was splashed with ice.
We set it on the cement floor of a large box.
The box became a luxury condominium.
With every third pull of the hoe, I rested,
to let the lungs thaw, to exhale a cloud
and waste a moment watching my crystal breath.
Such scenery would never be framed
And hung on these walls when finished.
So I mixed it into the stucco.
And quit the job.
Inevitably, in a book like this, one wonders how it was decided which pieces would be included. I found myself noting the absence of such stellar proletarian literary figures as Meridel Le Sueur and Agnes Smedley, or that towering rock and roll bard of contemporary working-class life, Bruce Springsteen. But, a line had to be drawn somewhere, and, as the book stands, Liebler seems to have made some really good decisions with the difficult and knotty problem of inclusion and exclusion.
Working Words is remarkable also in that brings working peoples' literature to a wider reading public. Many great authors are unavailable, unknown outside of small or specialized circles, or pigeonholed in a different niche (i.e., Eminem, who's obviously best known for his music). Now, with the publication of this unique book, a whole slew of voices are made accessible as never before.
All in all, Working Words is a fabulous achievement and a real contribution to the literary landscape of these United States. Here's to a wide readership and -- who knows? -- maybe even a sequel for those beautiful and rebellious souls who didn't or couldn't make the cut the first time around.
Books mentioned in this post