"Where You At" of Jim Daniels' Poetry: Breaking
the Machine, Line Breaks, and the "Here" of Silence
a chapter entitled "Why Work" in The Politics
of Identity Stanley Aronowitz compares the toil of data
processing workers with the working conditions of the factory,
and asserts that the new era of "computer-mediated clerical
labor" is "highly abstract without becoming conceptual
and is, therefore, more stressful than the automobile assembly
line where workers can dream as their hands perform individually
meaningless tasks but the product is concrete and widely understood."1
While Aronowitz's analysis of the situation of contemporary
labor is largely impeccable, I demur on the matter of a particular
myth about repetitious tasks: workers may intermittently address
themselves in an internal conversation containing sporadic
images of their daily life elsewhere, but this is not a dream
or dreaming. Fantasy can of course weave into the monotony
of any paid labor, but to suggest an almost Cartesian dualism
between the worker's body and the worker's imagination generates
a fundamental misunderstanding of what happens to the mind
as it confronts monotony. Aronowitz implies that the workers'
ability to dream is what enables the worker to cushion himself
or herself against the relentless sway of repetition. The
problem, of course, is that if workers are only present in
their bodies, and that their minds are "free" while
they labor, where are the poems which depict the actual dreaming,
this effusive abundance of solitary meditation? To my knowledge,
no such poems exist, and that is simply because such dreams
are too abrupt for language to be capable of recording them.
Language, on the other hand, is a primary means of recording
that which stifles the desire to dream. If the poems of Jim
Daniels seem to be accurate accounts of life on the assembly
line, they accomplish this through a description of labor
which has as much intensity and irony as any dream, but which
denies that the dreamer and the dream can exist simultaneously
with mechanized performance. In fact, James Daniels' poems
in themselves appear to be the necessary labor of dreams which
enable his characters to survive. If, as Marx says, "surplus
labor and necessary labor glide one into the other,"2
the poems of Jim Daniels address this blending by making the
poems appear to be necessary to his survival as a worker.
want to consider how Daniels' poems do the materialist dreaming
which Aronowitz assigns to the laborer in his routines, and
how the dreaming represents itself and conducts its argument.
Marx suggests in Capital that "as the taste of
the porridge does not tell you who grew the oats, no more
does this simple process tell you of itself what the social
conditions under which it is taking place."3
In Daniels' poetry, the prosody does inform the reader both
who assembled the poem, and the conditions under which the
poem was manufactured. This includes the pedagogy of factory
life, a constant presence in his poems. In "Where I'm
At: Factory Education," Daniels relates his first week
at the job, and how another worker named Spooner has to bluntly
instruct him on assembly line behavior: if a machine breaks
you wait for the supervisor to discover the problem. Spooner
says: "What the big hurry, boy? Listen, / You get
paid the same no matter. // Where you at, brother, where you
at?"4 Anything worth
learning, however, usually takes more than one teacher, and
only after a gruff encounter with Santino, the supervisor,
and some practical advice from a gray-haired worker named
Bush does the narrator in "Where I'm At" demonstrate
that he understands what he must do if he is to survive:
A part glides crooked down the
And I rush to straighten it
But catch myself. It catches
On the washer's inside edge.
Parts pile up behind the jammed
The conveyor chain clicks, then
I press the Stop button.
double catch in the line "But catch myself. It catches"
is meant to indicate a third catch: our own desire to see
this labor made lyrical. The final words of the poem, Where
you at?, are meant to direct the reader back to the advice
which Bush gives the narrator.
Hey, look at me.
Am I dirty? Am I sweating?
Look, you got to learn how to
Around here, kid. If you don't
How to break your machine,
Then you shouldn't be runnin'
first, this counsel might appear to be simply recycled Luddite
antagonism, but Bush is more forthright than that. He knows
the machine cannot be permanently mangled, and that the worker
will have to continue operating it one way or the other, so
the secret is to know how to break it. That knowledge involves
an intimate awareness of the individual part of the equipment
the worker is responsible for, but it also requires that one
is attuned to the other people "around here." "Hey,
look at me. / Am I dirty? Am I sweating?" co-worker
Bush asks, and he wants an answer that contains emotion, even
if it does not sound emotional. The complete answer to "Where
you at?", Daniels seems to suggest, requires that one
worker truly look at another. In his long poem, "Time,
Temperature," for instance, "A black guy on the
assembly line / offered to break my machine for me / accidentally.
I nodded." While one could analyze these lines for how
they balance each other rhythmically, that is, for how the
proportions of sound and pauses address the work done by the
machine of prosody, I would rather concentrate on the relationship
between the plasticity of the image and the silence which
makes it visible.
Human All Too Human, Nietzsche offers us a way to understand
how poetry works, even though he is considering another art
form in a paragraph entitled "The effectiveness of the
as figures in relief produce so strong an impression on the
imagination because they are
as it were on the point of stepping out
of the wall but have suddenly been brought to a halt, so the
relief-life, incomplete presentation
of an idea, of a whole philosophy,
is sometimes more effective than its exhaustive realization:
more is left for the beholder to do, he is impelled to continue
working on that which appears before him so strongly etched
in light and shadow, to think it through to the end, and to
overcome even that constraint
which has hitherto prevented it from
stepping forth fully formed. 7
poems are compelling portraits in part because he uses silence
to make his figures stand out in relief, and that partiality
of this depiction is exactly what we as readers are called
upon to finish. In "Time, Temperature," we do not
see the accident that breaks the machine, but we do see each
worker and both workers simultaneously:
We stood together, not smiling
Just breathing and waiting
Waiting and resting
Resting and sighing
Sighing and nodding. 8
one finishes this section of the poem, one might be tempted
to think that the idea, as such, is being presented in its
entirety. The final stanza appears to offer a kind of Brechtian
The nod. It's too easy
To say That's the kind
Of cooperation we need.
That's the kind of cooperation
we need. 9
final line, in repeating, appears to nod in affirmation, but
what is needed in reading this is to realize that the nod
isn't just to the figures presented, but to the pauses following
each tight, linked shift. The waiting and the resting and
the sighing are not the same spaces, Daniels is pointing out.
The reader must go back and nod at each of these shifts and
the transitions between those shifts. The gradual alternation
in the scene is crucial to its meaning, and to its argument.
How this takes place is up to the reader to imagine, and that
it is meant to take time, that it is meant to lingered over
in all of its incompleteness, is the work the reader must
The silence of shared labor is the heart of prosody, and knowing
the machine well enough to break it means that one knows enough
about when and how to be silent. In considering this image
as incomplete, in the sense of Nietzsche's suggestion, we
should also consider the other meaning of Where you at? This
is meant as a question of form as well as content. Where are
you at in this instant in relation to this line of poetry
is one of the questions which Daniels is asking simultaneously
with all other questions, and he does expect an answer, and
not merely a nod. If prosody is normally thought of as the
domain of metrics, it has ended up in that ghetto only because
the work involved in considering its social meaning requires
us to ask how this line has insisted on an answer to Where
In terms of considering a community of readers, the where
you at must include that space at the end of the line. Are
you here? Are you really here? Are you here at this point
in the poem, the pivot where the argument is about to begin?
I stand behind the biggest press
in the plant
Waiting for the parts to drop
down into the rack,
Thinking about what that mad
Could do to a hand. 10
Are you here?
Ah, heart. Hearts.
Mine and yours. Yeah, all of
The times we've given it away
For chump change.
The heart, the fist. If you're
Someone grabs your shoulder.
are you here with Paul Palowski?
I work the machine next to him.
He passes the parts over
And motions to me with his hands
Like a calmly drowning man
Trying to push the water down.
Fuck foreman. I nod.,
Shout above the metal sounds:
Go slow. 12
are you here - at the syllabic edge of cantilevered self-recognition
--Daniels poem is asking us, as we consider the workers waiting
together in silence. James Scully observes that "the
simplest decision about line breaks will ramify, affecting
not only the structural economy of a poem but its social practice,
the way it works as a poem. For instance, we know that a line
break will influence the way a word or syllable is attacked
(in the sense that a musician attacks a note)."13
Scully, however, is perceiving the line as much more complete
than it needs to be. Even the repetition of the word "attack"
in Scully's statement emphasizes that his reductionist approach
to poetry involves the same kind of patriarchal rapidity involved
in the political economy which he believes poetry should be
confronting. Once again, as with Aronowitz, I am in sympathy
with Scully's desire to make poetry a tool which enables a
community to articulate its history and its desires in ways
that illuminate the indefatigable paradoxes of consciousness.
The silence at the end of a line is crucial in such formational
work. In considering silence, even a hemidemisemiquaver of
silence, as being the most important prolongation of the poem,
I would frame it as a technique in Scully's sense of the word.
"Any technique takes place. A technique is a relationship
not simply to materials, though materials too are historically
specific, but to an audience, a constituency."14
An audience, however, is in the exact position as the poet
in terms of the relationship to the materials, especially
those subjects which are often considered "marginal."
Both the poet and the audience face the problem which John
Carlos Rowe cites as a core element of his pedagogy in Literary
Culture and U.S. Imperialism: "As a teacher, I hold
before me the goal of enabling my students not simply to 'think
for themselves,' but also to 'think of others' without thinking
for others."15 Daniels'
poems offer their audience the opportunity to engage in this
kind of cultural work, for it is in that silence at the end
of the lines that one can begin to think of others
without thinking for them. Perhaps it is that silence
which must first be shared enough so that one can become comfortable
with it as a kind of thinking; perhaps then one can begin
to speak of the things that are difficult to speak of, things
which involve the emotions of surprise and joy, as well as
guilt and shame.
1-Stanley Aronowitz, The Politics of Identity:
Class Culture, Social Movements (New York: Routledge,
2-Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One, in The Marx-Engels
Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, second edition (New
York: W.W. Norton, 1978), 365
4-Jim Daniels, Punching Out (Detroit: Wayne State University
Press, 1990), 15
7-Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, translated
by R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
8-Daniels, M-80 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh,
10-Daniels, Places Everyone, "Factory Jungle"
(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965), 70
11-M-80, "Parked Car," 22
12-Punching Out, "Paul Pakowski Was here,"
13-James Scully, Line break poetry as social practice
(Seattle: Bay Press, 1988), 116
15-John Carlos Rowe, Literary Culture & U.S. Imperialism
From the Revolution to WWII. (Oxford, OUP, 2000), 297