Bill Mohr  

The "Where You At" of Jim Daniels' Poetry: Breaking the Machine, Line Breaks, and the "Here" of Silence

In 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.

I 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 conveyor
     And I rush to straighten it
     But catch myself. It catches
     On the washer's inside edge.

     Parts pile up behind the jammed piece.
     The conveyor chain clicks, then snaps.
     I press the Stop button. 5

The 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 survive
     Around here, kid. If you don't know
     How to break your machine,
     Then you shouldn't be runnin' it.

At 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.

In 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 incomplete."

     Just 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

Daniels' 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

As 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 directive:

     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

The 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 do.

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 you at?

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 elephant
     Could do to a hand. 10

Are you here?

     Ah, heart. Hearts.
     Mine and yours. Yeah, all of you.
     The times we've given it away
     For chump change.
     The heart, the fist. If you're lucky
     Someone grabs your shoulder. 11

Or 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

Or 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, 1992), 238-239
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
3-Ibid., 349-350
4-Jim Daniels, Punching Out (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990), 15

5-Ibid, 15
6-Ibid., 16
7-Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, translated by R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 92
8-Daniels, M-80 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1993), 37
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," 30
13-James Scully, Line break poetry as social practice (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988), 116
14-Ibid., 122
15-John Carlos Rowe, Literary Culture & U.S. Imperialism From the Revolution to WWII. (Oxford, OUP, 2000), 297

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