Ray McManus is no stranger to awards and accolades. As the winner of the 2006 South Carolina First Book Prize in Poetry for Driving through the Country before You are Born selected by Kate Daniels and the 2011 Marick Press Poetry Prize for Red Dirt Jesus selected by Alicia Ostriker it should surprise exactly no one that his latest book, Punch, is no exception. Winner of the 2015 Independent Publishers Book Award, Punch is a book about work, about the hours buried in heat and toil and about what is discovered about the self during those hours.
It is easy to see why he has such a great win percentage. McManus is a poet of forceful attentiveness who has earned acclaim for poetry that is darkly humorous, starkly real, proudly Southern and independent, and that does not shy away from brutal honesty. In reading Punch, my first experience of McManus, my attention was immediately drawn to the pace of the lines. The language employed in the lines’ few beats is muscular, alternately coiled and in motion. Like conversation between moments of hot work, the language is alternately terse and garrulous. The poems balance long-gait sentences with sharp ripostes of declarative and deceptively direct statements that sound like the slap of an ax through wood or, appropriately, a left hook.
As I read through the sections of the book, all named after work shifts, I could sense that time’s passing was more than a long day on the job. The speaker also changes, grows tired and feels old pains, the past call of energy with all its mad, even violent need to get the job done. Doubts of ability become doubts of what could have been and what should be. Works pervades even the poems not ostensibly about work because it has been built into the body of the speaker. Work remains as the scars and the determination and the anger that years later comes out as passion and attention to detail.
The supreme and arresting irony of the book is that Punch, a title which invokes a sudden, violent and direct contact, is so centered on the gap between people and the gaps and failures within the self. Amid all the threats and bravado there is the greater threat that the gaps are unbridgeable, that there is no reliable way to connect with the world beyond physically grabbing it and forcing it to your will. This is all to say that the thing that struck me in reading this book is the role that talk plays, the stronger for its constant threat to break down and fail.
Talk is provided at slant angles: conversation that starts and stops between tasks. A language that mimics the body’s near breaking. Again and again, Punch lays bare the tension of language: the competing needs of communication and isolation while always the distance between people remains palpable. It is what is left out, the information that has been omitted from the conversations that pushes the poems forward. As with conversation during hot hours of hard labor, a single word has the potential to be sharp and loud and threatening.
Work and words are often perceived as polar opposites. But talk sneaks into the poems and threatens to expose the speaker. For instance, that Roman forum or Greek agora of the workplace, the smoke break, is cast as a desert in “Being the Only Smoker at the Conference.” The speaker’s voice is deposited in the sands in the hope that an answer, that the name of someone important, would come from the emptiness. But only the enigmatic answer, “It could be” returns. Again and again, when talk should succeed it does not.
The speaker’s ambivalence, even contempt for talk is counterpointed by the need to express. This is what draws me into the book as a whole. I feel without ever being proselytized to how bound the speaker is to language. In reading I noticed how banal and meaningless talk becomes during work, even as it is used as an escape. The poem “Jawbone” puts it best when describing the body as a vector for language. Using an analogy of an old branch too rotten to bother cutting down as a stand-in for a jaw good for nothing more than talk, the speaker casts doubt on the end effect of talk. Weakened and bitter with age, the pine-branch-as-jaw is “Good for pulp, shit for firewood.”
But in Punch, McManus has used the medium of poetry, with its short space and long memory, to show that any moment given over to an effort, whether it is building a fence or constructing a poem, is us at our most vulnerable and at our strongest. It’s like with “Small Engine Repair” with the give and take that creates something more than itself, more than the “two stroke principle.” This isn’t a dichotomy but an alchemy where the speaker evolves beyond the pendulum between two poles. As the speaker says, “I am better for it.” We struggle and bleed and make something of ourselves. Work, in the sun or in a poem, is a fight for definition.
Punch shows the mind of a poet whose leverage has accrued slowly over hours of mind-numbing and exhaustive labor. The poems in Punch come from the clear moments arrived at through sweat and the no-room-for-nonsense / no-time-for-your-bullshit of a mind worked to expertise while the body hardened. Punch is a book of good iron written by a poet who has the tools to show us all the meaning of work.