The Big Job
This is a holy tome every poet should read. Most if not all of the poetry in this great book have been published in the Blue Collar Review. The Big Job is published by and available from, Red Dragonfly Press. These are poems of militancy and humor interwoven by a master. Below is a review by poet Chris Butters.
THE BIG JOB: POLITICAL POEMS 1978-2004 BY ROBERT EDWARDS (RED DRAGONFLY PRESS, 2016)
147 years since Marx’s Communist Manifesto, 26 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, four years after Occupy Wall Street, Robert Edwards publishes a retrospective of his political poems.The title is The Big Job: Political Poems 1979-2003. Part retrospective, part invocation, part manifesto, at a time when the American poetry establishment and much of American poetry is governed by the strictures of an insular post- modernism, Edwards calls for a “Big Job”.
Come one, come all, you laboring tribe
and get your seven heel boots on,
the seven-leaguers. Lets go,
carpenters and data poets, dreamhackers
and cement finishers! Join the crew,
you wind-welders and stormy roughnecks laughing
open mouthed over roofs of the world!
Come on and get your feet muddy with common cause.
Let’s drink the light profane
from a jug we pass mouth to mouth like a kiss.
This is the Big Job,
the high bridge to the future, never finished.
See the cities of the Americas,
of Africa and Asia of Europe and Down Under, mate –
my people built it all, every working color of us,
our labor, our genius, our patience with the stone.
The seven wonders of the world are all in a day’s work to us.
Babel was an outhouse, Notre Dame a closet,
the skyscrapers are toothpicks and the pyramids
bricks in a fireplace where we warm our feet,
compared to what we raise and span.
No ordinary construction project, this is a big job with work for everyone, hard work, but honest work, work not only to build bridges and schools,but the very foundations of a new society And it is big for another reason – it is governed by a big idea: that working people can take destiny into their own hands and shape the new society in their own interests, and not the capitalists.
Women and men, we need your steel.
Your feet are the foundations ,your arms the girders,
your talents the rivets and mortar. Bring everything you have,
we need it all because
it is ourselves we make –
Edwards poems express the blood truths of the class struggle. But at the same time the journey to get to any punchline (if there is one) is never straightforward. Rather it is like reality itself, frequently marked by surprising images, twists and rhythms of a North American language, surrealist juxtapositions, and the dance and interplay of contending forces.
This is a poetry deriving its power from an interdependence with the workers movement and simultaneously and continually drawing on a power independently from it i.e. the fountain of the imagination. This is a poetry that resonates powerfully as poems, as well as being contributions to the political struggle.
If The Big Job is based on the premise that workers have the power and skill and intelligence to rule society, it is also based on the premise that workers have the power and skill to create their own working class culture. Such a culture includes use of the most advanced artistic techniques developed under capitalism, but speaks by, for and on behalf of working people, reflecting our own experiences and struggles.
The poem “Inauguration Day, January 2001” (regarding the 2000 U.S. presidential election) concludes with the line, “the coup was successful” (the “coup” being the ascension to power of George Bush through a coordinated campaign of criminal vote tampering by the Republican Party, collusion by the big business media and a rubber stamp by the Supreme Court). What could easily have been another bulletin that the emperor has no clothes, instead accumulates power through the juxtaposition of surreal images leading up to a conclusion with the force of revelation.
The oceans did not boil.
Earth did not roll a grown around the sun.
A hundred dollar bill lit a cigar with a human being.
The dead did not rise to march on Washington.
Without one rain of toads,
without one plague of boils,
George W. Bush, III, proud member
of the wrecking class and the new CEO
of America, Inc., in a hostile takeover,
stepped to the podium and placed
the melting icecap of his hand upon
some dead paperweight box of words.
The spigot of his mouth opened
and a geyser of crude flowed
over the green earth.
The sky did not darken at noon.
The moon did not turn to blood.
The coup was successful.
In the poem “Inquest”, a poem that concludes with a rhetorical question is preceded by a tableau of images that take on the power of a Diego Rivera mural.
Our statesmen, those politicians
fat with contempt for the People,
and holding a nuclear pistol pointed
at the world’s hostage head –
why do they keep digging foxholes
on Wall Street?
Can’t they see the angels descend
from dusty heavens, helpless
to take the injured workman’s place?
Can’t they see the braiding together
of earth and sky on the rainy horizon?
Why are they trying to dam up the future
before the dawn? And why
are they whispering
to one another in a language of blood?
Isn’t it fantastic
they don’t know that the equation in the leaf
is not the end of mystery?
Are their feet dead, or are they just plain stupid
because they can’t understand that the dance
of millions together
is the terror of the gods?
In the space of four stanzas, the poem moves swiftly from political statement to lyricism, from the humorous to the serious, from an image of descending angels and gods to an earthly language of blood , all anchored by the voice of one worker speaking to another.
Sometimes the “point” of Edwards poems is the river of images, as in the haunting poem of homelessness, “River Of The Dispossessed”. “American Dark”, on the other hand is part love poem, part political missive, and an almost perfect fusion of the personal and political.
And who could believe that writing based on the working class could be so exuberant and so much –well, FUN -- interspersed with such partisanship? Here is a stanza from “Dear America”.
Ach, mein friendly Totenkamph Papa,
how about if I give you an empty glass and promise
to fill it next fiscal year?
No, thanks, you say? You have to be going?
You have to make sure
that the production of silence is maintained
in the factories of the dead?
Wait, Dad of Eagles, don’t go!
We have so much to talk about.
When is America going to be the Motherland too?
And in the basement of the Smithsonian
are you holding the real Uncle Sam?
Dear America, now is the time to bristle with Spring
and green thunders!
What we ignore will surface like a submarine
in our coffee—
Dear America, America mine,
…. you’re already out the door with your fingers
in your ears….
This voice – marked by rollicking word play and a deadly seriousness lying just beneath the surface – will be repeated in other poems in The Big Job. The carnivalesque quality of Edward’s exuberant language may strike some as in contradiction to the book’s flip side of plain speaking and sober truths. But when one remembers the historic role of carnival in overturning society’s established class order through festival and theater (even if just for the day), Edwards’ strategy becomes clear.
This book, which collects poems from 1970- 2003, is like a compendium of political struggles in the U.S. during those years. There are poems here written in solidarity with the Central American and South African revolutionary movements. (Even here, the headlights of the South African miners are “like a third eye that opens far underground /in the infernal midnight galleries of exploitation”.)
There are poems like “Fourth of July”. In the summer of his class struggle, the young poet experiences a solidarity with other workers, and the world view of Marxism. We will need these poems, given the struggles to come.
Edwards is particularly good at lambasting the extreme right wing figures of the Republican party of these years, and the big business forces who stand behind them. The poem “When Newt Gingrich Speaks” exposes the stench of fascism lying just underneath the glittering rhetoric of Gingrich and Helms (and our present day Trump). Poems like “Progress, Holidays, And The Official Story” poignantly remind us that racism is alive and well in the supposed U.S. “post-racial” society, and the fight against it is an integral part of the struggle of our “Big Job”.
The destruction of the Soviet Union throws a big shadow in the course of this compendium, as well it should. Whatever one’s view of the Soviet Union, the loss of a counterweight to imperialism clearly threw the socialist movement on the defensive --and the working class in retreat under an emboldened imperialism in its trumpeted “new world order”.
At a time when the capitalist class hailed the destruction of the Soviet Union as evidence of “the death of communism”, Roberts defiantly reaffirms his Marxist commitment (“The Death Of Communism”). At the same time, reflecting the soul searching shared by many of us on the Left at the time, Edwards asks us, “Shouldn’t there be an inquest?/ And isn’t it time to demand answers from our hands,/ to interrogate our tools?).
He then asks,
“Yes, there are better shopping opportunities now,
and all the world’s currencies flow
into one sea of trade whose bottom line is salt
to the thirsty, riptide to the unemployed,
or a painter’s light – a green steel Vermeer
tha never fed a child. Yes black money
continues to frag the future,and the same oppressions
gather their old names to new men.
This is the perfection we need not surpass?
Accommodation is the wisdom we have awakened to?
An this is why our hands framed the tools
that troubled the thunder of gods outgrown?”
And if imperialism has been temporarily strengthened, it hasn’t changed its spots. In another poem Edwards uses his knowledge of Greek mythology to give it a different name: Erysichthon.
Because he would devour the world and be Death,
Erysichthon was cursed by Demeter with insatiable hunger
. Driven insane by appetite, he sold his daughter for food,
dragging all he could to his mouth,
until he broke his teeth on rocks,
until he tore the meat from his own bones
and dying drank his own blood down.
Like you, America. Like you.
But it is the poems about America , where I think Edwards poems especially sing. The poems in The Big Job are filled with American heroes: Pete Seeger, Gus Hall, Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, Geronimo Pratt, Martin Luther King, Ma Joad and Grandma Millie. (And a new one – Uberman !). I also think it is no accident that it is in these hard-won poems his language, voice and meaning come together and most successfully fuse.
In Pete Seeger, Edwards uses a music festival as occasion to portray the hope and aspirations of American working people.
The floodplain is claimed in one voice by the People,
if only for tonight. A summer sound of joy
goes down to the dark currents of Big Muddy singing,
and we feel what is possible:
the good American heart of its men and women,
open to the world, all the labor in the fields of justice
bearing beautiful fruit at last,
all highways open, and the rivers running untainted
into the future, mixing the black earth of the Heartland
with the cold salts of the sea….
“Highways” is another example where Edwards fuses his lyricism, use of imagery and commitment into a new whole. He sees the “rusted steel towns”, but also identifies in the course of the poem a “rainbow tribe” and a promise.
and when I awoke I held a dream in my arms
tight so tight believing
all of us or none, believing that America will rise
into itself, climbing its prayers
into the promise of the morning. Yes
I have seen the sleeping face of that dream
in your restless rainbow tribe
as they struggled in their labor and against
the hatred or indifference of the rich
and their own scabs and traitors.
wherever I awoke, I held a dream in my arms,
rocking it in the cradle of my ribs ---
a dream that could not wake up.
Elsewhere, poems indicate that this dream can only be actualized through militant struggle against the capitalist class – and against the false patriotism and jingoism of “Yesterday’s War”, and “The Republican Café”.
At a time where poetry is dominated by a “post modernist” aesthetic of essentially “art for art’s sake”, Edwards has created a significant body of work that bases itself on the working class, and which also possesses a rare power and resonance.
I hope this book enables Bob to reach the broader audience he deserves. To those who ask where are the new Pete Seegers, I say: read this book. To those who say, where are the political poets who speak for us, I say: read this book. I hope this book will get into the hands of those who need to read it most. I hope it will be read and, what is more, USED.
At a time when the capitalist crisis is deepening, this book is a call for workers to imagine. It is a call for workers to act. At a time marked by the biggest looting of the wealth of the working class by the capitalist class in centuries, it is especially a call to a new generation to pick up the torch and carry the struggle for the Big Job forward. In Edwards’ poems there is also a special emphasis on the role of poets in this daunting but important work.
This is a long road and heavy lifting awaits. But if this means continued struggle by the working class “rainbow tribe”, there is also joy and comradeship -- and poetry and beauty and music -- along the way.
“Women and men, we need your steel.
Your feet are the foundations, your arms the girders,
your talents the rivets and mortar.
Bring everything you have, we need it all because
it is ourselves we make –
the earthquake-proof human highway,
carrying our children and their imaginations
to skies beyond our last nail.
are always against us -- I like the odds!
And I don’t know about the dead,
but we’’ll make enough noise to wake the living!