Reviewed by William Bernhardt
I should have seen it coming. The book opens with an epigraph from Philip Levine that provides fair warning: “You’ve never done something simple, so obvious…because you don’t know what work is.”
That quote is a clear indicator of the informative and enlightening pleasures to be found in Ray McManus’s fascinating volume of poetry, Punch. While the topic is ostensibly work—ordinary, working-class, get-your-hands-dirty work—and the prose style is deceptively simple, there are marvelous discoveries to be made within these pages. Franz Kafka once wrote, “If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?” Kafka would’ve liked this poetry book. This is a clarion call for the claw hammer, not the velvet cushion.
McManus’s subjects are everyday people performing quotidian tasks, people who work in cubicles and phone banks and the cabs of semi-trailer trucks, people who are sucker-punched or punch drunk or both. His style is lean and muscular, and yet these poems contain surprising moments of tenderness without a single false or pretentious note. There is a sense of honesty in these poems that makes them ring true.
This is work about work, so it not surprising that the sections are named for work shifts: First Shift, Swing Shift, and Graveyard. Within those shifts lie a wide variety of riches. Many of the poems, such as “Dick” and “The Blacksmith,” draw portraits, like persona poems. Others seem almost memoir, whether real or fictional, such as “Freshman” and “Clearing Headstones.” Others focus on the work itself. Particular standouts in this category are “Receiving” and “Small Engine Repair.”
This should not suggest that work is the only subject McManus tackles, because his range is broad and his subject matter often startling. “Break” is a nature poem and holds its ground with the best in the genre. Another of the finest poems in the book, “How to Add a Porch to a Trailer,” touches the heart, not in a sentimental way, but in a heartfelt and profound way. Other emotion-evoking poems include “Abduction” and “Performance Evaluation.” The tour de force of the collection may be the epic “Dog Box,” which manages to encompass work, love, passion, pain, longing, and desperation, finally arriving at the conclusion that the highest goal may be to feel nothing.
Although his language tends to be spare, McManus does a fine job of creating penetrating imagery. While the poems could be categorized as modern free verse, there is a variety here that prevents the collection from becoming redundant or repetitive. There are even list poems, impossible to read without thinking of Whitman. The Notes at the end of the volume, explaining some of the working-class vernacular employed in the poems, is reminiscent of the extensive notes Eliot eventually supplied for The Waste Land.
One of the great joys of poetry is that it lends so many varied opportunities for artistic expression. One of the great joys of reading McManus’s collection is that it represents a unique and at times shocking portrait of ordinary life rarely glimpsed. While this grimy dirt-under-the-fingernails world may not appeal to all, it represents a unique vision and one worthy of consideration. This is the underbelly of the world seen on glossy magazine covers, television, and film—the cogs behind the corner offices. Are they accurate? I’m not qualified to say, but they certain read true.
This poetry is creative, artistically fearless, and offers insights that I did not anticipate. Here is a book that sheds light and opens doors, as does all the best poetry, and rewards the reader for having spent time within its pages.