FACTORY AND BEYOND
Who will remember Continental
was the foremost aluminum polluter
The five billion bacteria in
a teaspoon of soil!
The million earthworms per
What bug! What fish! What frog!
What snake! What bird!
What baluchitherium or pteranodon!
What paleolithic man!
How can I apologize to primeval
shorelines cluttered with
To William Blake, factories
were "dark satanic mills." The priest-kings of capitalism chose to ignore the
disparagements of the eccentric English engraver and the Industrial Revolution
spawned the technological Triumph of the West. The United States, as the Firesign
Theater put it, decided to "invite immigrants over and make cars."
By now the U.S. has made plenty
of cars, and lots of everything else. But, publicly, we chose to call attention
not to manufacturing but to marketing--it requires cleverness and hand-shakes
and you can do it wearing a suit. In our national mythology, Vulcan at his forge
has been replaced by the Willy Lomans and Lee Iacoccas. Our televisions show a
nation of go-getters getting over, with marketing the key to everything from romance
to finance to eternal salvation. But behind all the hype is still the Product,
and whether it's an after-shave, a briefcase or a Moral Majority membership card,
the chances are it comes from a factory.
"Factory" is also the title
of a poem, a 1600-line song of praise to Bad Attitude on behalf of all the men
and women who spend their lives inside factories while Madison Avenue transmutes
their sweat and boredom into The Economy. An epic poem is a poem containing history,
and history is the poem written by Time with our blood. "Factory" is history with
the blood still wet.
Originally published in 1980
in the City Lights Pocket Press series and hailed by critics and poets --notably
Alien Ginsbergas a major achievement, the poem now appears in a full-length volume,
Last Words, by a poet who goes by the name of Antler. Antler was raised in and
around Milwaukee, where (the poem opens):
The machines waited for me.
Waited for me to be born and
For the totempoles of my personality
to be carved,
and the slow pyramid of days
To rise around me, to be robbed
They waited where I would come
a point of earth,
The green machines of the factory,
the noise of the miraculous
machines of the factory,
Waited for me to laugh so many
to fall asleep and rise awake
so many times,
to see as a child all the people
I did not want to be
Written in the 'Whitmanic line'--long,
sometimes prosy, free-verse lines of mostly spoken-style American language, meant
to be read aloud--the rhythms of the poem's 13 sections rise and fall like music.
In the mid-1800's, Walt Whitman
had great hopes for America. It would have been nice if he was right, but he wasn't.
Antler updates Whitman, fusing the roles of prophet and witness with social protest
in a voice that calls to mind vintage Ginsberg. Yet the voice is Antler's own--less
Old Testament and more Midwestern working-class than Ginsberg: something like
"Howl" and The Grapes of Wrath mixed together.
By turns ecstatic, furious,
resigned, punning, informative, vengeful, paranoid, plotting, plodding and delirious,
the poem's cycles remind me of the inner life of a workday at any job that occupies
the body and leaves the mind to its own devices. Every fear, hope, scheme, dream
and despair known to humankind can run through a mind in one eight-hour day.
Antler exhaustively portrays
these moods and mood swings. How did I get here, he asks:
All the times walking to school
All the times playing sick
to stay home and have fun,
All the summers of my summer
I never once thought I'd live
to sacrifice my dwindling
packaging the finishing touches
on America's decay
The all-powerful faceless Ultimate
And the first shift can't wait
to go home,
And the second shift can't
wait to go home,
And the third shift can't wait
for the millions
of alarmclocks to begin ringing
As I struggle with iron in
Hooked fish played back and
forth to work
by unseen fisherman on unseen
The end-of-the-day aches:
His feet feel like nursing
homes for wheelchairs
The lives not lived while working:
Everywhere I could be and everything
! could be doing right
Feeling the butt of a cosmic
Is this death's way of greeting
at the beginning of a great
Antler makes it abundantly
clear that he has better things to do than make cans for Continental Can Company.
But there is more going on in this poem than a personal protest against the raw
deal of wage slavery. Just like office work, factory work is not only unfulfilling
and boring, but destructive. Somehow we find ourselves daily digging our own--and
the planet's--graves in subtle ways that refuse to remain subtle:
Before, I said--"There will
always be room in my brain
for the universe. "
Before, I said--"My soul will
never be bludgeoned
by the need to make money!"
Before, I said--"i will never
cringe under the crack
of the slavedriver's whip!"
Now my job is to murder the
Now my job is to poison the
Now my job is to chop down
every tree! · · ·
I spend eight hours a day crucifying
I spend eight hours a day executing
"Factory" is encyclopaedic
and fun. We learn the history of the can, the number of cans used in the world
each year, that children who worked 12 hours in factories fell asleep with food
in their mouths, how the poem itself came to be written, and why the poet has
taken the name Antler. There are dizzying lists of all the products produced in
factories, and towards the end of the poem the reader is even accused of looking
ahead to see how many pages are left. The poem is prayer, incantation, confession,
expose, curse and document. It bears witness to our rage and gives the cage of
despair a good hard shake.
Many people associate poetry
with Culture, and you know how much we all like Culture when it's capitalized.
Pablo Neruda sought an "impure poetry." Kenneth Patchen, who didn't see this world
as a benign place, prescribed "a sort of garbage pail you could throw anything
into," to dispel poetry's image as pretty, precious and rhymey. Antler has thrown
everything in and come out with an impure masterpiece.
Antler offers no readymade
answers, any more than Processed World does. But, like Processed World, he asks
the right questions with humor and humanity and, pushing an important subject
to the snapping point, breaks through in revelation.
"Factory" was written between
1970 and 1974. The remaining 63 poems in Last Words span the years 1967-1983,
from the poet's early twenties to his late thirties.
I remember thinking after first
reading "Factory," "What does this guy do for an encore?" In the sense that every
writer writes the same book over and over, he does variations on a theme. Antler's
theme is the holiness of all life and the illegitimacy of any authority that denies
This is a tall order, and some
of the poems are more successful than others. Their length ranges from four lines
to seven pages. One section, 'Reworking Work,' expands on the issues presented
in "Factory." "Dream Job Offer" is a playful fantasy of a job as a mattress tester
in a department store window and includes the lines:
Only those who enjoy sleeping
No bedwetters, wetdreamers,
buzz-saw snorers, or those
wake up in a cold sweat screaming
will be hired.
The poem seems to me a sophomoric
joke, not particularly original, but carried out so well and unself-consciously
that it works. It's not profound, but relentless, obsessive. At its best, Antler's
exuberant relentlessness becomes profound.
Antler presents himself as
a modern primitive, a mescaline visionary, a flower-sniffing backpacker; yet he
knows not only what's going on in the world, but in his profession: the poetry
world. He knows there has been a swing in the direction of aestheticism and experimental
language-oriented poetry. In "Your Poetry's No Good
Because It Tries to Convey
a Message." his response is blunt:
Tell it to Jews hanging from
Tell it to Wilfred Owen's exploded
Tell it to James Wright's cancerous
Tell it to Victor Jara's hands
in Santiago Stadium,
Tell it to all the ears, breasts,
cocks and balls
cut off in every war . . .
Tell it to 52 million children
working in factories in Southeast
Asia. . .
Tell it to the $100 million
it cost to kill
each soldier in World War II...
There is a stridency to his
potent vision that is sometimes difficult to take. As with every book, every movie,
there comes the moment when the work ends and we are thrust back into our own
lives where nothing is simple: Where to from here?
These poems do not answer that
question. They do give voice to things I've heard expressed countless times in
countless ways: the technopeasants are restless. Antler speaks for hedonists,
anarchists and brash believers everywhere when, in "Why No 'Poet Wanted' in Want
Ad Column," he talks back to the smug pragmatists and well-adjusted compromisers:
Especially when you invoke
a marijuana blowjob religion,
Especially when you place Solitude
Wilderness Vision Quest
above all the Works of Man.
They want you to get a job
you don't like
and have to be working full-time
so you can't write anymore.
They want you to confess
your poetry is full of shit.
Somehow your writing
Besides, Christ already said
So don't bother trying to say
something new that's true.
What are the words of a mere
A review of LAST
WORDS by Antler (Ballantine Books, NY: 1986) $4.95. Reviewed by klipschutz.
next to the Son of God's!