Matthew J. Spireng’s new book of poetry, Good Work, winner of the Sinclair Poetry Prize and published by Evening Street Press, is a vibrant work merging past and present. However, this is not a collection of personal memoir poems. Many of the pieces submerge us into a deeper, mythic past with mostly unnamed characters from the American (we assume) working class, the heartland where one’s work defines a person. What you “do” becomes the identifier of who you are. In this time of economic unease and inequality, there’s a respite to these poems, and even perhaps a yearning, showing us people in action who do not doubt their purpose or question why they were put on this earth to fulfill their lives and livelihood.
We meet builders, carpenters, loggers, and fishermen, to name a few: all essential workers of their time, all puzzle pieces to help build their community and nation. We meet a band instructor, proficient at numerous instruments (although the oboe is the instrument of choice) who is as dedicated to his musical craft as the woodworker is to shaping oak planks. Getting to know the people who populate the book leads us to know them and to respect their worth as fellow humans. The poems bounce between first and third person; when the poet uses the first person “I”, it feels as if a fictional character is speaking which creates an additional layer of intimacy, a whisper into the ear. Of course, there is a wide variety of subject matter in the book, from a bocce ball game to watching humpback whales, but I found the poems that acutely observe people in the act of “doing” remain the most resonant. An example is the opening of “The Carpenter’s Work Brings a Music”:
They’re building a framework across the way,
a house, a dwelling, a place someone will call home,
carpenters busy with hammers and nails
In the midst of the workdays, there are also moments of respite and reflection, as in the poem: “Fly-casting Class.” But even here, the characters strive for precision:
Half a dozen men stand thigh-deep
in waders in the water in Missouri Headwaters
State Park practicing casts over and over
What I especially found interesting was the amount of focus Matt Spireng spent recounting jobs and crafts produced by hand: hand-crafted, hand hewn, as if the hands of people have a magical energy able to transform wood and stone and other medium into utilitarian objects, each with a one of a kind beauty. Of course, humans do possess this gift, but it’s something we often forget in our age of mass-production and rapid disposability. The reader can pause here a moment and savor what the poet has brought to us: that slower age when the “making” initiated its own time frame, unrushed by a timeclock or the end of day deadline. I’m familiar with numerous poems of Matt’s in print and at live readings, and I know first-hand that he’s a true wordsmith who takes the time needed to craft the words on the page. This was evident in another book of his, Out of Body, Winner of the 2004 Bluestem Poetry Award and is again strongly present in Good Work.
The poems are tightly formed: boxed and spare. Seldom does a poem extend to a second page. They are crafted the way a woodworker dovetails a drawer. Spireng says what he needs to say, choosing the best and accessible words to convey deeper meanings. No filigree or gloss here, just a sequence of plain truths that we can take in and further ponder.
One question arose when reading: the apparent lack of female voices and characters. But as I reread, since gender is not mentioned in many, this might be put at rest. If a carpenter is at the heart of a poem, could that person be of either gender, or a binary person, or a person who self-identifies without my need to pigeon-hole them. I mention this because at the same time I was reading the Spireng book, I was having new bookshelves measured to be built by a carpenter/woodworker/craftsperson who is female. Perhaps it’s now time for all of us to move into a new century where assumptions shouldn’t be the result of knee-jerk, old-school thoughts.
I was taken with how the poet sets us within the book’s world, and how place becomes central as much as the characters he brings to life. The poems made me think about the connection of place and character in narratives whether they be in fiction, poetry or memoir. This grounding feeling shows us that where subjects are located are as important as the tasks they perform.
Good Work is fine and important work and some of the best writing from poet Matt Spireng to date. The reader will be rewarded many times over. He brings us to see the worth and the worthiness of our labors a little more clearly. And also of poetry. I leave the last word to Matt Spireng from the title poem:
Good work, I thought today, is the muse,
the fount of creation, the spark that lights
the wick that lights the way to writing a poem.