* microreview & interview: jeff sirkin’s travelers aid society

After having done a couple of “microreview & interviews” for the Cincinnati Review blog, I have decided to incorporate the form into The Friday Influence. Essentially, I’ll highlight a couple of poems as well as responses from the poet to a question or two specifically about influences. My goal remains centered on sharing things I’ve read and want to share with the community of readers of this blog, as well as to promote specific poets and be a poetry ambassador in general.

I plan to do one microreview & interview about every two months, posting on Mondays typically, except for this first one which I wanted to highlight today.

Below is the first official TFI microreview & interview featuring Jeff Sirkin’s Traveler’s Aid Society.

suitcase

Another Repair – Jeff Sirkin

How long will I wait at the garage
knowing the seals are shot
and thinking about the plumber
again with his hand out
always on his way?

We’re entering a dark place
but can’t we just stand
with the company to whom
we’ve committed ourselves?

And someone turns up
the ever-present television
(a bad plot device I think),
Cable News like an epidemic
blaring the failure of the new
administration to eliminate Mexico
The mechanic wiping his hands
Maybe if you changed the filter
every once in a while, he shrugs,
you’d have a chance

But I’m not, I assure him,
one to play the odds
unless you count the Folger’s coffee
burning away in its pot all morning
a product of Proctor and Gamble
my hometown’s biggest employer
a source of pride and soap.
They’ve kept the city afloat
for a century.

You must realize, he continues,
it’s hopeless. Meaning “No future,”
I translate, eyes on the TV footage
of another immigration crisis.

I’ve heard it before
and seeing as I’m not going anywhere anytime soon
I’ll hear it again.

What do you think? I ask.

Well, he offers, the coffee’s always terrible.

No, man, try to keep up,
Will I make it home?

*

I chose this poem specifically from the book because it serves as a good example of the way Sirkin is able to blend intimate intellectual insights with moments from day to day life throughout Travelers Aid Society. The language and phrasing of the second stanza, for example, is the kind of poetically charged statement that points beyond its meaning within a narrative. The words “a dark place” and “company” have their place in terms of politically conscious tone of the poem, but implied also is human company as well as the corporate type (like Proctor and Gamble mentioned later). A collection whose “home” ranges from the poet’s experiences in El Paso, Buffalo, and Cincinnati, this kind of linguistic friction works to humanize where the poet is at, mentally as much as geographically.

Waiting in the garage for something to be fixed, this speaker’s meditation is quickly colored by the “bad plot device” of a TV in the background. This self-aware move on the part of the poet does two things: 1) shows an awareness of the kind of narrative his speaker has entered, but also 2) serves to reach after a way to control and subvert that narrative. I read the way each narrative element in the poem – the waiting, the TV, the small talk between mechanic and speaker – end up tumbling together by the end as making this kind of subverting necessary. Through juxtaposition of thought, detail, and dialogue, the poem itself seems to be trying to respond to the urgency behind the speaker’s words at the end when he says, “try to keep up.”

This feeling of trying to keep up via poetic means remains constant throughout the collection. What the poems try to keep up with for the most part is history, both in terms of personal memory and the history forgotten/neglected in documents and archives. The title poem, included below, is a good example of the way these two sides of history can be in dialogue in a poem. In the crucible of the poem, memory and archives help create a space outside themselves that allows for history to move beyond its own established narratives.

Travelers Aid Society – Jeff Sirkin

The hill falls, the daily paper shrinks.
In the kitchen Dad laments the collapse
of state funding for public institutions
and calls out headlines over morning
cereal. “Smog Alert in Effect.” “Streetcar
Called Waste of Taxpayer Money.”
We chew on our toasted oats
and pretend the coffee’s better
because of the new machine.

I remark on the efficiency of the
shower drain, the empty gates
at the shuttered airport terminal, my research
plan for the Historical Society library.

The coffee demands empathy.
The meteorologist predicts
more of the same. Dad claims
he speaks from self-interest.

“Youth Police Cadets in Training.”
“Drought Cited in Fireworks Ban.”
“Bankrupt Airline asks Fed to Assume Responsibility
for Pension Promises.”

Call it my empire of repurposed
paper. My network of convenience packaging.
My ruin in reverse.

At the research library I search for traces
of Jeff Davis, the self-proclaimed King of the Hoboes,
but find outdated property maps and lectures
lamenting the great surplus of excellent projects
seeking capital.

I search for The Jungle Scout. The Hobo News Review.
The Travelers Aid Society.

I find a scale model of the old baseball stadium
and snap a photo from high-above the left field fence,
but no one cares to comment.

I read about railroad speed, railroad case,
and railroad convenience. I find notes
from shareholders meetings
of a hundred defunct railroad companies.
Danville and Pottsville. Greenville and Miami.
Sunbury and Erie. Hillsborough and Cincinnati.

The first in the West is the Little Miami,
incorporated 1836, completed 1846. It runs
along its namesake river on the east side of town
north to Springfield, surviving
as a corporation until 1981, when it is
merged out of existence, the dormant rails ripped
from their beds, the right-of-way developed
into a bike trail.

The museum laughs. The archive
pleads for mercy. I make an offer
to the stationary loop
of the evening commute.

Billie Holiday sings,
“I’ve been around the world in a plane,
settled revolutions in Spain,
the north pole I have charted,
but can’t get started with you.”

Out on the interstate
three black me balance
against the highway embankment
hacking weeds and sowing seed aggregate
to arrest the sliding soil.

Over their heads the sagging fence beckons,
the family-friendly chain restaurant glowing
just out of reach.

*

Influence Question: There is an interest in the title poem and elsewhere with researching hobo culture. Can you speak a little about this interest as well as the overall political framework of this book?

toddler-town-bw-smallJeff Sirkin: “My interest in hobo culture emerged from several things. One of these was Kerouac’s On the Road, which I’ve taught a number of times over the past several years, and which, despite its flaws, I continue to find compelling. Among other things, the novel creates a spectrum of different character types found “on the road” (from commuters, to tourists, to college students on summer adventures, to itinerant workers). Of these, hoboes are regarded as the most pure, having achieved almost a state of grace in their rootless wandering. As if, having committed themselves to the road (and thus movement) instead of some tenuous dream of property and “home,” they’ve separated themselves from the consumer capital/ industrial/ modern world, and thus exist almost as holy ghosts, skirting the edges of our reality and perception, visible only to those open to seeing beyond the reality of workaday life. Free, in a sense of the ideological frames and boundaries refracted in and through our bodies as our daily lives and dreams.

“Secondly, in April 2011, just as I was really getting started on this book, a friend of mine from Cincinnati—a musician and wanderer and free spirit—was shot and killed by a police officer in Cincinnati under confused and suspicious circumstances. I discovered only after his murder that he had lived as a hobo at one time. The idea of the hobo had already come up in some of the poems, but this incident brought to the fore some of the issues and themes I was already starting to think about: frames and boundaries; property; what “inside” is and means; what it might mean to be “outside” and what the cost to transgress that border; the structures of power that create and hold us as subjects. And this is not to forget what the cost for those who by virtue of the color of their skin or nationality or background or sexual orientation or identity or expression aren’t given the option to ‘choose’ their own relationship to culture, whose status as “outlaw” is imposed upon them from the start.

“Finally, early on as I was researching both hobo history and Cincinnati, I discovered that Cincinnati was, in the early part of the 20th century, an important locus for hoboes and hobo history. Jeff Davis—self-styled “King of the Hoboes” and founder of a chain of cheap lodging houses in cities across the U.S. called “Hotel de Gink” (“established, ran by, and for hoboes”)—was born in Cincinnati in 1883. He hit the road at the age of 13, traveled the world as a hobo, and was a leader in hobo culture, working tirelessly for hobo rights (and labor rights), founding and leading the Hoboes of America organization for many years. He died in his hometown of Cincinnati in 1968, at the age of 84. It remains curious to me, having grown up in Cincinnati and having lived there as an adult for many years, and then returning to do research there, not only that I’d never heard about Cincinnati’s hobo history, but that I couldn’t find a trace of it. Maybe it was never recorded; maybe it’s been forgotten; maybe intentionally erased. For me, it became a ghost whispering about a city that may or may not exist in the shadows of the one I think I know.

“There is a mythology surrounding hoboes and hobo culture dating back to their heyday, the turn of the last century (at least), in which hoboes represent freedom, escape, and living a heretofore unrecognized alternative existence. I was interested in that mythology, as well as its real connections to the city I was writing about. In the book it becomes a kind of limit, I think, or maybe a faulty utopian dream, a big rock candy mountain that, despite its romantic appeal, might also function to mystify us to alternative ways of thinking freedom.”

*

Final thoughts: Reading this collection, I admired how the layers of memory and fact kept being acknowledged and explored throughout. One of the poetry’s responsibilities, according to these poems, would seem to be listening in on and recording what we can of the ghosts around us. Poetry, then, can be seen as one way to resist settling for the prescribed narratives expected of us and also a means to finding one’s own path to the rest of the story.

*

Travelers Aid Society can be purchased from Veliz Books. Special thanks to Jeff Sirkin for participating in this microreview & interview! To find out more about his work, visit his site.

Happy aiding!

José

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