Local author Robert Walicki released a new book of poetry this spring from Main Street Rag (check him out here if you’re interested in getting you’re hands on it). AHH editors have shared a stage with Bob at PAGE readings in the past, and always enjoyed his words.
The TL;DR version: it’s a beautiful book with western PA baked into its bones. For the full review, read on below.
Robert Walicki’s poetry collection, Fountain, is at once a song of praise to the blue-collar traditions and sensibilities of longtime inhabitants of Southwestern Pennsylvania (steel workers, glass workers, plumbers) and something of a lament to the ways those sensibilities (hard work, sacrifice, an acceptance of one’s station) have a tendency to weigh heavily, through the generations, on the bodies and souls of those who live the life of what could have once been called the middle class.
In the opening section, Walicki centers on the struggles of being an experienced (i.e., aging) plumber in a time when more and more of the work is coming from major corporations. Poems like “Site of a Future” and “Stripped” bear witness to a small-town city in the midst of losing its identity, while “Boxes” and “Anything” highlight the bodily and mental strain that come with generally thankless manual labor.
…Don’t mention the imaginary ghosts that float past your eyes,
shards of metal lodged in the burning suns of your retinas.
Say yes to medical gas, and the hazards of asbestos.
Say the fumes never bothered you, you’ll do anything.
The second section takes on more of a nostalgic quality, focusing on his love of punk and post-punk music as an escape from the mundanity of middle-class teenaged life and the inevitability of growing up to lead the same kind of hard life his father and grandfather led before him. “Freaks” and “Punk” delve shamelessly into the days of black eyeliner and nail polish, of dyed-blue mohawks, of distancing yourself from the denim and flannel of your parents.
In “Hole”, the narrator finds himself in a secondhand music store, bartering for new music:
Have anything harder?
I say, Something loud.
I want it to hit like a fist
Something to turn me into a man.
Walicki then returns to adulthood, focusing more on the existential effects of a life of labor than the physical. “Depression Screening” and “Zen or the Art of Trying Harder”, both in the third section, find the aged and beaten narrator in a doctor’s office and a yoga class, respectively, ruminating not on the damage decades of hard work have done to his body, but to his mental health.
From “Zen or the Art of Trying Harder”:
…when she says Lotus, I see gas bill.
When she says, Mimosa blossom falling, I see brake fluid, rainbowed
in a pool under my car, sharp gravel under my knees,
the curse of a wrench, grease burning the cuts in my hands.
The closing section deals mostly with the mortality of the narrator’s parents and others of their generation. “Drive” is the story of a father showing his children a sprawling suburban landscape, a veritable mansion, how the other half lives. “To My Mother Who Hates Lake Erie” begins with the family matriarch’s reminiscing during a family dinner about tragedies and hardships of the past, but shifts quickly to the seemingly banal observations of the narrator’s college-aged niece as she prattles on about a concert she attended the night before, culminating in the grownups at the table insisting that it is their turn to pay the check. “Broken” focuses on the failing memory of the father, with the mother informing those involved of his likes and dislikes, his favorite drink, which he is no longer able to remember or communicate.
Fountain reads like the history of many of us, swallowed alive by our work and the eternally unanswered question, “Has any of this been worth it?” For those of us who have grown up in hard-working, blue-collar families, bills paid with blood and sweat, in a city once known for its break-your-back style of industry, this collection is a reminder that we’re all in this together. For those from the “other side of the tracks”, the “better” side of the tracks, Walicki’s poems offer a glimpse of the daily struggle that might otherwise go unknown. With Walicki’s no-nonsense and yet still lyrical language, Fountain is a testament to human resiliency and our desire to know we’ve contributed something of value to our fellow humans, to our community, and whether or not it’s important that anyone remember it.
From “Classic Cuts”, about a deceased old-school barber:
…Driving home past the closed True Value
Hardware and a vacuum shop,
I wonder if anyone will remember me,
stop somewhere and tell stories of how things used to be,
the better days when I was here.