The Real Deal
by Eric D. Lehman
by David K. Leff,
Homebound Publications, 164 pp.
Since David K. Leff’s first book appeared over a decade ago, he has carved out a position in New England’s literary and environmental history. Some of his books, like Canoeing Maine’s Legendary Allagash, reach back to a Thoreauvian past, and some like Terranexus, attempt to build the ethics of the future. Most of his work is non-fiction, with a readable mix of history, reportage, and philosophy. But he is also a poet, recently holding the title of Beat Poet Laureate of New England and Poet-in-Residence of the New England Trail. On the shelf, The Breach (Homebound Publications 2019), seems like a well-made continuation of his previous aesthetics and form, beautifully designed by publisher Leslie Browning and illustrated with evocative drawings by Ariel Prechtl. However, we soon find an ambitious project that few poets would consider attempting: a complex, cohesive, funny, tragic, authentic story. Upon closer reading, we may even find a new American masterpiece.
The book takes the form of a series of objects “talking” to us, supposedly assembled by an “editor.” But it is also a fully realized story, a novel-in-verse full of the gossip, betrayals, and affairs that mark small town life. The setting is the town of Rockwood Falls, based loosely on Collinsville, Connecticut, which Leff portrayed so lovingly and completely in The Last Undiscovered Place (University of Virginia Press, 2007). The fictional town’s main employer, Jenkins Sheet Metal Fabrication Company, is not much like the fabled Collinsville Axe Company, but comparisons are inevitable when discussing the loss of manufacturing in an American town. Of course, it reminds the reader of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, which is slyly referenced in one poem. But with a complex web of connections in the fading mill town, The Breach is more than a tragedy of local proportions, it speaks to everyone in the post-industrial age. What endures? Leff seems to be asking. Material objects? Politics? Human relationships?
The book is full of “breaches” of trust and of faith, with the greatest breach being the one between us and our shared past; forgotten, ignored, or swept under the rug. An epigraph from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables speaks to the generational anguish that has affected every culture in every time period: “The wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive one, and divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief.” The opposite is also true, with the new always pushing out the old. Both these tensions inform and infuse The Breach with a simmering conflict.
The editor’s note that precedes the interconnected poems provides a “chain of scholarship” from the objects to the person transcribing their stories, to the “editor” (who may or may not be Leff himself), to us. This is more than a frame story, it creates verisimilitude for the reader. Moreover, it is the way that history itself works, through found documents, fragments, uncertainties. Did Leff write these poems and assemble this epic tale? Or did he merely find them, the way J.R.R. Tolkien “found” the manuscript that became The Lord of the Rings? And if so, who wrote them in the first place and how? As “editor” Leff writes, “The tale basically remains as the writer, copyist, or transcriber (take your pick) intended.” This distancing provides yet another level of uncertainty, an uncertainty of truth that fuels the best fiction.
Indeed, The Breach has all the complexity and narrative juice of a novel, a cast of recurring characters, conflict, dialogue, a story that seems both familiar and new. The dense shorthand of poetry allows him to pack in that story in a way that would otherwise take hundreds of pages. And yet, it remains easy to read, because Leff’s poetry does not get its richness from complexity of vocabulary and syntax. Instead it is rich with ideas and authenticity, as if it had “linseed oil rubbed into our knots and grain.” And the individual poems are made even more interesting as you follow the threads of extra-marital affairs, backroom political intrigue, and shifting fortunes of characters observed by these objects. As you page through, the idea of a piece of rootball driftwood speaking to you soon seems natural. Each new object also seems to bring something different to the table – a different voice, a different set of concerns, a different perspective on the events.
Leff’s attention to the details of craft and manufacturing are poetry in themselves. In the “Editor’s Note” the manuscript was found in a galvanized box, while the typewriter that composed it had a clogged letter ‘p’. Objects like “Dark Brown Bellows Briefcase,” “Cobrahead Streetlight,” and “Quarter Sawn Oak Office Bookcase” are evocative even in the table of contents. The brand names sometimes included do not feel out of place or “postmodern,” but supra-historical. It is a Bridgeport Milling Machine and an Underwood Champion Typewriter talking to you, and each starts to feel like the proper names of a character you have known forever, like Sal Paradise or Stephen Dedalus or Jane Eyre.
Another remarkable thing that Leff does is what he does not do: take sides. Actions are narrated or described by objects, which are often, appropriately, objective. Not always – some of the objects do have strong opinions about the events taking place around them. But the multiplicity of voices allows for multiple truths, multiple perspectives, as in a play. One of the first actions of the epic comes when Ivan North alerts the authorities that the factory is contaminating the town. The gray-bearded crank’s motivations are not heroic or noble; rather he is angry that he was fired. The townspeople are not happy knowing this vital truth, because they will lose their livelihoods. Is his act a betrayal? Does it preserve future generations from cancer? Or doom the town to poverty and ruin?
By locating the dialogues and descriptions in the objects, Leff is able to step back from his own beliefs as a Thoreau scholar and dedicated environmentalist. “Are we traitors, or did the company betray us?” the Wishbone Bureau Mirror asks. “As always, I reflect only what I hear and see.” The book gives voices to those who lost their livelihoods and purpose due to regulations, as well as those whose lives are shortened by toxic chemicals and pollution. It speaks of the poisons of politics and gossip, of silence and regret.
There are no easy choices in The Breach, and it often seems like there is no way out. The steam pipe in the factory tells us “My asbestos wrap saved/ thousands of dollars annually/and uncounted barrels of oil.” There were reasons factories used a material like asbestos, and though we might not regret the “moonsuited boys” coming in to remove it, we might also bemoan the fact that “There’s more money/in shutting us down/than in manufacturing quality products.” The cost of this loss of industry is not just money, it is friendships wrecked and marriages ruined, bitterness and threats, over-extended bar tabs and Monday-morning quarterbacking.
One character tries to turn the old factory into an artist collective, and some readers could see this as a good result. Leff certainly leaves us with hope that the next generation will do better. However, he doesn’t let us off with easy answers, and even that marginal victory is compromised by the half-measures of politics and money. And, as one of the objects argues, it doesn’t bring jobs back, doesn’t add enough to the town’s economy to bring back a “golden age” of usefulness and production. In this way, not only the multiplicity of voices but the multiplicity of possibilities, of both past and future, leaves us with the ambiguity and conflict inherent in great literature, and in life itself.
The last poem is narrated by a Cheney Company hammer, used for the last time to pound in a nail on which is hung the picture of a hammer. Thereafter, the “real deal” lies unused in a closet. Leff seems to be asking if art is all we are left with when something dies. Is culture worth the struggle? The Breach itself is a fine representative of this elegiac art, but is it as useful, as worthwhile, as a hammer? Leff leaves that answer to us.
About the Author:
Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing at the University of Bridgeport and his work have been published in dozens of journals and magazines, from Berfrois to Entelechy. He is also the award-winning author of fifteen books, including Shadows of Paris, Homegrown Terror, and Becoming Tom Thumb. Visit his website at www.ericdlehman.org.