Karen Harryman's Auto Mechanic's Daughter

Harryman, Karen. Auto Mechanic's Daughter. Akashic Press, 2007. (86 pages)

Karen Harryman’s Auto Mechanic’s Daughter is one of a batch of three poetry books put out in 2007 by Black Goat Press, an imprint of Akashic Books. The series, curated by Nigerian poet and novelist Chris Abani, seeks to “give marginalized voices a chance to express themselves,” and, more specifically, to create a reputable forum for writers who are making challenging work that is “contrary to what is expected of them.”
       Harryman’s book falls splendidly into this category, with its central focus on a portion of American society often forgotten—low-income whites in the Southern part of the U.S.—but saying that a book of poetry falls into any category, no matter how fresh and necessary that space may be, can unfortunately cause some to minimize the book’s breadth and significance. And this is an important book, for various reasons, including, but not limited to, those mentioned above.
       Harryman lived in Kentucky for most of her life, before moving to Los Angeles, where she now resides. The poems in the book, which are almost all written in the first-person and appear to be mostly, if not entirely, autobiographical (with room for imaginative interpretations of events, of course), manifest the various terrains the author has occupied, both externally and internally—from Kentucky to Portland to Paris to Los Angeles to the ramshackle interior of a poem itself.
       The poems’ lovely, lucid images and their rather simple (yet effective) line structures go down so smoothly, that it’s easy to gloss through Auto Mechanic’s Daughter and miss some of its import— namely, its brave and complicated intentions. This is a book to be meditated upon, like any good book of poetry, and one of it’s distinctions is the conscious refusal Harryman makes in distinguishing a hierarchy between modes of existence that are, culturally and (sub)consciously, entrenched in hierarchy. It would have been easy for Harryman to glamorize the places she’s traveled in Europe, or, equally obnoxiously, to fetishize the poverty of Kentucky—beautifully, she does neither.
       Harryman’s non-distinction between, say, a café in Paris and a trailer in Kentucky, never fails to capture the unique splendors and particular sadness(es) of each place. Her enraptured attention in the physicality of objects and persons makes each of the worlds she inhabits rich and distinctive; her eye for the often-overlooked never wavers. In Paris, it is “not the golden hour’s long shadows/ over vineyards, their gilded names,” “but the busboy” she notices, “bored with sunsets at 14” (82). As in others, there is much playful irony in these few lines to be enjoyed—Harryman is teasing the reader as if to say, “Yes, I can write you a pretty postcard from Paris but who really needs another;” ‘I was in Paris and watched the sunset from the Eiffel Tower,’ poem, is the quintessence of most “travel” poetry, in this age of tourist-poets. Harryman’s poem about Paris—aptly titled “Postcard (III)”—is one of several of these brief, bright gems in the book, each of which are haiku-like in brevity yet dense with meaning.
       Considering the equality of attention Harryman imbues into each of her landscapes, it would be easy for her work to fall into a sort of blind Pollyanna optimism about the world, touting poetry as the “great equalizer.” Thankfully, this is not the case. Rather, a shrewd, tense awareness of the privileges the poet herself possesses is evident in the work, as well as a necessary tension between the power of poetry to generate renewal, and the meagerness of language. From “What Matters Now”:

                     And I do not think
this poem matters, except to say
I think about your finger,

how I would hope to know it,
pick it from a pile if I had to.   (63)

There is a strong sense of abandonment of roots on the part of the poet, when she moves from Kentucky to California at some point in her history (the poems are not arranged chronologically, perhaps to avoid a false notion of progress or “moving up in the world”). Paradoxically, it seems that in this removal she is able to look back, to assess her past, and, most importantly, bestow much-needed grace upon her own “harelip legacy” (74). There is painful recognition on the poet’s part that she has in some quiet way betrayed her own people, and even judged them. The poems, then, become a form of apology, an attempt to woo back a jilted lover. From “Kentucky Blason”:

Tonight, I’m in love with banjos, bluegrass,
you love me too, Kentucky…

you forgive me for losing my accent,
making cornbread with a mix, and paying too much
for blue jeans, rent, and shampoo. Forgive me
for laughing when you’re the punchline.   (40)

The poems also take the form of a prayer, but instead of turning to God, the poet turns to the physical world, to garbage (literally) in search of restitution, because these are the things that are useful, they are markers of a life lived. The poems are rife with “stuff,” the “tinder of hand-me-down things:/ busted teacups, dolls, their plastic hands/ tattooed with marks broken crayons leave” (55). The cataloguing of things, often broken, never ritzy, becomes a kind of incantation, noticeable especially in poems such as “Credo for Odds and Ends” and “White Trash Blessing.” These conjure a sense of spiritual repair for those who have been disregarded as society’s “trash.” The repair or renewal is in the physical details, in paying attention to those details. This attention calls to mind Simone Weil’s truth, “Attention is a form of prayer.” From “White Trash Blessing”: “Let broken toys regenerate/ in grassless yards. Handlebars/ will sprout tires, frame, banana seat” (74).

From “Credo for Odds and Ends”:

                      I believe in the house
that is never clean, in quilt scraps and bits
of yarn, ravelings and threads. I believe in piles
and crooked stacks…

In batteries and bulbs, hard evidence
  of the junk drawer…

                      And I will not turn now
  windless, to the stars, to God. I will hang my life
  on one spare screw.   (64)

In the end, poetry itself (also overlooked in American society) is but a “thing” in need of contemplation for it to have any meaning or purpose. From “Today the Poem”: “Today the poem is wound in sour laundry left too long in the/ bottom of the hamper. It is the wood grain shining beneath layers of dust and dog hair, forgotten” (57).
       It’s worthwhile to hold the books title in mind to make the connection between the poet’s heritage of mending that which is in disrepair. Harryman’s intention, however, is not to “fix” so much as it is to reveal value that is already there, shimmering beneath the surface, not hidden so much as glossed over. To see this requires attention—this is Harryman’s point. The intentional concentration the auto-mechanic’s daughter gives to her subjects is no charity work, it is the “one spare screw” on which she is “hangs her life.” It is what she knows, in the profoundest sense of the word. To truly know a place or a person is to devote ones existence to it, to make it’s worth one’s own, in order to bring it, blazing, to life.

From the book’s final poem, “Auto-Mechanics’ Daughter (II)”:

                          I’ve stumbled up
from greener banks to discover the use of broken things
misplaced, the three-legged sofa in the forest. I know
where debris collects, in fencerows and tufts
of tall grass…

I live for what I know.   (85)

Kate A. Durbin writes poetry and fiction. In March, she will graduate from the University of California's MFA program in Riverside. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Ledge Poetry and Fiction Magazine, Boxcar Poetry Review, The Elegant Variation, and Moondance. Kate lives with her husband in Whittier, California. (kdurb001@ucr.edu)

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761