|Iconoscope: New and Selected Poems
by Peter Oresick
|University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016
It’s rare to find a poet with such a laser focus on creating a lifelong legacy. From Definitions in 1990 to Warhol-o-rama (2008) and anthologies like For a Living (1995), Oresick devoted his life’s work to making, fostering, inspiring, and highlighting art for, by, and about the working class. To read the sequence of his latest collection is to appreciate and be captivated by a project more than 25 years in the making: the democratization of poetry and a true, beautiful expression of the working class experience in America.
No other poem in the collection so perfectly captures Oresick’s essence as “After the Deindustrialization of America, My Father Enters Television Repair,” from Definitions. Covering a sweeping chunk of history from the 1300s to the late 20th century, the poem betrays the immense depth of research and intent Oresick brought to his craft. With pitch-perfect imagery, he transports us into a childhood of “the Kwik-Mart on the corner… mother’s footsteps, / the tonk of bottles, / the scraping of plates,” where grandfathers and machinery sputter simultaneously. As its narrative threads come together, the poem’s core rises, gleaming, into sight. For the children of immigrants and tradesmen, the inborn need to build something of meaning—something that will outlast us—is inescapable.
Oresick, of course, built worlds with words. And, from his explorations of a blue-collar upbringing to meditations on his “Rusyn brother” Andy Warhol, there has always been a commitment to keeping things intelligible. His poems glitter like ornate glass drinking bottles—beautiful, yes, but equally aware of their utility. Difficult emotions must be expressed simply; images must be reliably understandable to readers of all backgrounds. These poems defy the canonical tendency toward opaqueness and ethereality. Take, for instance, these lines from “Morning, Allegheny River.”
Silence. No moon in the heavens.
Stars that spin and pivot, nuanced,
never resting. Again a longing—
forget it. Suddenly, everything is dimly
visible, not yet flushed by dawn.
The bushes dewy, the cinders slick,
the train rails glow light & cold
& bluish. I piss & spit. A breeze
flutters; my body responds with a
shudder of delight. The dog smiles.
Twice the poem seems to catch itself becoming too lofty. That longing is inexpressible? Forget it. We’re lingering on the color of train rails? Enter piss. But the eye still catches the beauty we can all recognize in a quiet morning; our bodies all respond with a shudder of delight.
This seems to be Oresick’s great message, and I am grateful for it: that we all live a life that is capable of rising to the status of art. My father has been a delivery man all his life, my mother a secretary and a bartender and a government employee. The people in Oresick’s poems are my people, too, and their lives do have beauty and meaning and lessons to teach. Which is not to say they’re idyllic—there’s still piss and spit and layoffs and drinking. But isn’t that the point? We take it all together and wake up in the morning to do it again, forever, as our parents did and our children will as well. And hopefully, when we’re gone, we’ve left something to remember us by. Or, as Oresick says, in lines that ring true of his own legacy—
No endings. The pure
notes of a car horn ascending.