- Sign Not Imagined
Change always seems to bring disillusionment, no matter where the change occurs. That change is all the more devastating when it happens in a small community.
From Milltown to Malltown, a collection of poems and photographs by poets Jim Daniels and Jane McCafferty and photographer Charlee Brodsky, examines life on both sides of Homestead, Pennsylvania. The town, like the collection, is spilt between the vacant buildings and old homes of the former "Milltown" and the retail haven of "Malltown," which lies on the other side of the tracks and is full of shopping malls, chain stores, and construction sites. Each poem in the collection is written in response to a single photo creating what Dorianne Laux calls a "haunting portrait of working-class America in decline and the scars we bear in the name of progress."
The collection opens with a wide shot of what was once the town's mill, which is now a muddy field with only a single pillar in the middle. The photo depicts the site of the 1892 Homestead Strike between the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers and three hundred Pinkerton detectives. Daniels dubs this once industrialized space as "Used-Ta-Be" in the collection's opener. He recalls the story of this historic landscape with "The ancients recall battle / and blood. They search the landscape for some sign / that it was not imagined."
From this point, the collection focuses on the decrepit side of Homestead. The first poem, "Available," offers a typical view of old Homestead, office space for rent in what was probably a bank. Other images in the "Milltown" section are of an abandoned church, empty storefronts, and foreclosed businesses. Despite the bleak, black-and-white emptiness in the opening collection, the human bonds aren't completely obliterated in this part of the town. Brodsky often photographs the people of the town, and the poets give the reader a fictional account of the subject's personality.
At times this pairing of poems and images doesn't quite fit. In one poem and image combination, ironically entitled "Beyond the Obvious," the poet only plays with what's shown in the photo: a young girl blowing a bubble, the images on her shirt, and two babies looking away in the photo. While the image is intriguing on its own, the poem doesn't seem to have a purpose other than narrating the picture.
Thankfully, the poets maintain a sense of humor in their treatment of the subjects in the "Milltown" section so that the tone doesn't come off as too heavy handed. In a short poem and photo combination, "Mailboxes," the poem's narrator assumes that the two names on a mailbox belong to people who "are living in sin" and advises them to "Go see the priest, set an example for the youth! / Who cares if the youth aren't looking." While the photo can still stand on its own, the humorous tone of the poem complements the image of old-fashioned mailboxes.
In the second part of the book, entitled "Malltown," the poets take on a considerably more sarcastic tone in their view of the endless parking lots and construction. In this space, human connections do not exist. Photographic subjects are mannequins, a store clerks in uniforms and a mall walker. Daniels poem "Hello, My Name is Eric and..." is a perfect example of the disassociation of human relationships in this new world of consumer culture. Daniels asks, "How many of us / have worn that name tag," enticing the reader to connect with the subject of the photo, a young man who appears to be on a break as his standard-issue tie "can't get / loose enough." Daniels uses this space to recall how most people are too polite to ask store clerks for assistance as a way to show that even in this atmosphere where human connection is possible, politeness drives us to leave one another alone.
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