by Jee Leong Koh
I arrived in America excited to be lost. I was to be a graduate student of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, but what was I really to be?
Unknown to me, the school had assigned me a buddy, and we met at the orientation meeting. A short dark-haired Irishman, Jason Irwin walked up to me with a big smile, an outstretched hand and an unsubtle limp. A childhood sickness had taken off a leg. As he showed me around the campus, favoring his prosthetic limb, I was more often the one leading the way. We became fast friends. Jason was a habitué of The Spinning Wheel, and I joined him at the pub many evenings, to gossip, commiserate, and trade off-color jokes. He would still be there when I left. The next day he would greet me with a resounding JEEE! and regale me with stories of him tripping over the curb or surviving a run-in with his landlady.
Heavy drinking did not stop him from writing. Though we were from different years, we shared one poetry workshop, taught by Stephen Dobyns. In class Jason was reticent about other people’s poems and modest about his own productions. I was not the only one, however, who saw that he was the real deal; Stephen, with his commanding knowledge of the poetic tradition, gave his drafts respect and attention. Jason was among the first in his cohort, if not the first, to publish a chapbook, called disarmingly Some Days It’s a Love Story (Slipstream Press, 2005). Not long after, he won the Transcontinental Poetry Award, and Pavement Saw published his first full-length collection.
Watering the Dead (2008) accumulates power in its depiction of the stunted lives and thwarted dreams of small-town, blue-collared America, specifically Dunkirk, at the western limit of the state of New York, a town which was, as one angry poem puts it, built and then abandoned by the steel and railroad industry. Novelistic in its close observation of people and places, but unmistakably poetic in its arrangement of symbolic details and its canny handling of the line break, Jason’s book has as its chief virtue a deep empathy for people who are suffering and who cause suffering to others.
The sufferers are family: divorced parents (the father is seen with painful irony, the mother with painful tenderness), a grandma with cancer seizures, a granduncle with “salt-swollen ankles / oozing through socks,” and uncles who wasted their lives in long factory shifts. The sufferers are also friends and schoolmates from St. Elizabeth’s, whom one gets to know, and not to know, to a peculiar extent in a small failing town. They kill themselves by driving to beat the train. They drink themselves to death in local bars. They get locked up.
But there is nothing generic about them; the glory of the poems is to bring them all to life: Joe Larivy who picked his nose through Spelling; Priscilla Kapinski who showed her snatch behind the rabbit cage; Frankie Lugo, the dutiful son, who was jailed for child molestation; Ed who finally got out in a rented truck; Walt Poland who stayed, and spat Morse Code onto the bar top; and Eric who thought we are all nothing but dirt anyway. When I visited Dunkirk, on Jason’s invitation, and stayed with his mum, we heard that yet another of his high-school friends had been thrown into jail. I think it was for armed robbery.
To evade a constricted life, everyone dreams in Watering the Dead. The grown-ups dream of owning Cadillacs, the children dream of becoming Rocky Balboa. An expansive future, which can only be found if one leaves home, is figured as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Those who don’t leave home lust for consolation in glimpses of female breasts and ass. In “Holy Thursday,” the speaker wanders into The Friendly Tavern, talks to Walt Poland, the Morse Code spitter, looking like Lazarus “caught somewhere between this world / and the next,” and sees what the bar is watching.
I order a pitcher from Brenda—
the green butterfly she keeps
between her breasts
makes everyone sit up straight—
Nestled between the dashes, as between Brenda’s breasts, the green butterfly is an alluring example of Jason’s way with symbols. The small detail, presumably a pendant, carries a terrific charge, not just erotic but also soteriological. Butterflies are a traditional symbol of Christ’s resurrection. Green as spring, Brenda’s butterfly raises everyone’s spirits on earth and, after death, everyone’s bodies for heaven. “Holy Thursday” is an elegy for Walt Poland, whose life is now bound by a pair of dates: 1930-2004. To his SOS, the poet sends a butterfly.
The religious impulse of the book also issues in a desire to sanctify one’s hometown, and one’s memories of the place, for Jason did escape. Spared from ordinary responsibilities and expectations by his childhood misfortune, he was freed to read and write. Halted in his body, he let his mind go a-roving. Some of the authors who mattered to him appear in his poems as naturally as roadside flowers: Shakespeare, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Thomas Wolfe, Antonio Machado. His writing caught the attention of a poet, who recommended him to Sarah Lawrence College. He was accepted and, like the British Expeditionary Force, he was rescued from Dunkirk. Away from home, living in the self-conscious charm of the village of Bronxville, Jason was compelled, however, to write about what he had left behind.
The last poem of the book, also one of the most powerful, recognizes this compulsion. In “Going Home,” the speaker returns to Dunkirk on a visit. He walks, or limps, from the Babe Ruth Field, where Eddie Zappie pitched three perfect games and could have made it but for booze and Stacy Watson, to the steel mill where both his grandfathers did time. From the closed mill he walks to the deserted downtown, emptied by the Wal-Mart out by the Thruway, into the convenience store where the same fat girl stands behind the counter, then into Sara’s Tavern where “the same faces drink the once local draft.”
And then, in a surprising leap, the poem moves back in time to a year the speaker can hardly imagine, so promising it seemed: 1851, when the first train arrived in Dunkirk carrying President Millard Filmore and the great senator and orator Daniel Webster. How exciting! But the excitement would pass, as surely as the train pulling away from the station.
In a beautiful summation, the imagination working with memory and becoming self-aware, the poem concludes:
There are people here who talk of leaving,
but only go as far as Bruce’s Corner Store,
or the Greek diner at the dock.
Maybe it’s the view of the hills to the south,
or the three smoke stacks
of the electric plant at sunset, that keep us here,
or maybe it’s the sound of my own voice,
reciting the streets named for birds and fish
as if they were the names of saints.
Watering the Dead is dedicated to Wendi Lee. Jason started dating Wendi, our mutual friend and fellow writer, while he was still at Sarah Lawrence. She was good for him. He stopped drinking as much, and then less and less. After she too graduated, they got married in The Astoria World Manor, a reception hall in Queens. Musician friends played for the happy occasion. There was dancing in the barn-like space. When rent got impossible, the couple moved to Pittsburgh. I stayed with them one Thanksgiving and we read our poems aloud into the small hours. After their move, we did not see each other as often as before, and so I was surprised to learn of their break-up. My first thought was that Jason would go back to drinking.
He did, initially, but he was also getting into plenty of hard reading and writing. He found solace in the good Samuel, not Adams but Beckett. He continued to work on his surrealistic plays. Then I found in my mailbox his new poetry chapbook, titled simply Where You Are (NightBallet Press, 2014). The virtues that I love in his work undergird this latest collection. The feeling for the dailiness of life’s disappointments. The devotion to a plain yet eloquent diction, associated with the working class. The discovery of metaphor in the course of living. Not for nothing is Philip Levine, the bard of America’s industrial heartland, one of Jason’s lodestones.
If the poems have let in suspicious abstractions, the writing has also welcomed congenial experimentation. Forgoing his skill at manipulating the line break, Jason wrote and included prose poems in the chapbook. Of the six prose poems, the strongest shows the influence of his playwriting, under the aegis of Samuel Beckett.
To an Amputated Foot
How I hated you then, lying on the fuzzy brown rug in my parents’ room, staring at me with that twisted nine-iron face; a hunk of ginger root, or coral washed ashore. Yet even now—with so many years between us—if I close my eyes and lie perfectly still I can hear you calling my name.
Besides the prose poems, the other new feature of the chapbook is the subject of a marriage gone south. True to Jason’s gentle spirit, there is no recrimination or hysteria here, but an aching remembrance of loss. Or, more accurately, of getting lost. In “When We Were Happy,” the speaker remembers the daughter that he and his wife talked about having but could never have, an imaginary daughter for whom they even bought clothes and kept them in a bottom drawer. Since the marriage is lost, so is the daughter.
Now I dream I’m walking down a rainy street,
I hear her crying, calling to me;
that little girl whose clothes we kept
safe for her arrival—as if by keeping them
she would magically appear.
Then the speaker realizes, in a moment full of mythological overtones, that he is the one who is lost, and she the one looking for him.
I follow the sound of her voice until
I realize it’s my own voice calling out,
lost in the storm, and it’s she who finds me,
takes my hands in hers, and leads me back
home, where you’re waiting, excited
to see me, like before.
It’s all a waking dream of course, a fact that sharpens the poignancy of the scene. Holding on to the dream daughter may lead the speaker back to an earlier, happier time, but it cannot bring that time back. There is no help coming to this Dunkirk. Where you are, we understand, is also the painful cry, where are you.
A new book of poetry by Jason Irwin, A Blister of Stars, will be published by Low Ghost Press in July. “Another Dunkirk” appears in a forthcoming book of essays by Jee Leong Koh, tentatively titled Pauline and Other Essays from New York.