Cover The Gleaners, Jean-François Millet
In his fine new book, Good Work, Matthew J. Spireng writes of putting up wet hay, “Inside bales the heat builds/… [J]ust one is enough/for spontaneous combustion to/bring down the barn/in flames.” Of chopping down an oak tree he writes, “There’s no way to tell before cutting it/just how old it is. But you know it’s huge/and it’s old.” Spireng’s good eye and restless curiosity consistently make the physical reveal its figurative dimension. Contemporary literature needs a term for poems based on careful and imaginative observation powered by a spirit of exploration; I offer Spirengian. – Suzanne Cleary, author of Crude Angel (BkMk Press, 2018); winner, John Ciardi Prize for Poetry, for Beauty Mark (BkMk Press, 2013)
For many years, in many poems, Matthew Spireng has watched the world and himself with close and patient attention. In poems arising from farming, or logging, or writing and reading, there are strong portrayals of failure and success, danger and safety, or doubt and certainty. One source of the richness in this book is that you have to wait for each poem to tell you, in a given case, which side of the question might be better. It depends on the feeling, which Spireng gets profoundly right time after time. – Henry Taylor, author of This Tilted World Is Where I Live: New and Selected Poems, 1962-2020 (LSU Press, 2020); winner, Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for The Flying Change (LSU Press, 1985)
Walt Whitman said he regularly found letters from God dropt in the street, and, in like manner, Matthew Spireng finds poems every day in everything he comes across. He is the bard of the quotidian. One of America’s most prolific and widely read poets, his poems ─ with their honesty, their good humor, their unruffled craft, their interior tension ─ bring, one by one, page by page, to each reader a new dawning of perception. —R.H.W. Dillard, author of Not Ideas (Factory Hollow Press, 2014); winner O.B. Hardison, Jr., Poetry prize and Hanes Award for Poetry
Review of Good Work by Matthew J. Spireng in The Main Street Rag, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring 2021. Reviewed by Richard Allen Taylor.
Matthew J. Spireng’s Good Work lives up to its title. This winner of Evening Street Press’ 2019 Sinclair Poetry Prize celebrates good old-fashioned labor of the kind that a diminishing number of Americans do these days: chopping wood, pitching hay, sawing boards and other practical pursuits of rural living. At the fringes of that theme, Spireng tosses in a poem about a prehistoric toolmaker fashioning a spearhead, several about writing and teaching, and a few about the work of a pro hockey player. The poet’s attitude toward physical work is appreciative and praiseful in a way that reminds me of my father, who lived from 1907 to 1980 and was fond of saying, “any honest work is good work.” He usually said this when handing me an axe or shovel.
The collection beings with “1919,” so titled because of two pennies, bearing that date, found when “We tore at the walls / to get at the studs, crowbars / piercing and prying …” The finders surmised that at least part of the building they were demolishing was built that year, and that the builders planted the pennies as a sort of miniature time capsule. As clear in its meaning as it is plain in its language, “1919” jump-started the book for me with its many implications: Work is good. Work is fulfilling. Work has a variable relationship with time, and its impact can ripple through generations.
An example of that work/time relationship, the poem “Indian Artifact” muses on a found spearhead and its maker’s craftsmanship, still evident.
This is chert chipped
thousands of years ago,
tool knocked from stone
by man who never wrote.
This is his mark
made with stone against stone
before the bow
was invented: pre-bow
chipped with such precision
it still could kill…
While Spireng’s writing style is generally consistent throughout these poems, none are quite as terse as this one, in which most of the words chosen are monosyllabic and the lines are clipped short, as if to mimic the steady, rhythmic chip-chipping of the toolmaker.
In contrast, “Sharpening the Axe,” a memoir poem set in modern times, is comparatively expansive, with looser, slightly longer words and lines (though by no means verbose):
I’d watch my father with the axe
in the back of the garage at the workbench
using the electric grinder with spinning wheels
of abrasive stone. I’d be fascinated
by the flying sparks that bounced
from his jeans, curious why his pants
never caught fire…
Spireng has a wry sense of humor. “Avacado Ranch” gets my vote for most entertaining poem in the collection. The poem pokes fun at the Western custom of using the word “ranch” (in lieu of “farm”) to refer to the fenced fields where avocados are grown:
… perhaps that’s what fences are for
where they raise avocados: to keep avocados in,
not thieves out, though perhaps some nights
avocado rustlers ride in fast, cut the fences
and drive the herd off, leaving the rancher
cursing his loss, wishing he’d stuck to farming.
Good Work will bring back memories for older readers who lived on a farm, used an axes instead of a chain saw, and developed calluses from wielding tools such as hoes, shovels and pitchforks. This book is for them. It’s also for younger folks who never had to work that hard. Read this book and appreciate how work has changed. – Richard Allen Taylor
Read poems Chipmunk, Morning Run, Big Sky, Montana 167 Harvesting Ginseng with My Brother 168 Speaking of the Weather in Upstate New York, February 169 Evening Street Review, NUMBER 26, Mid-autumn 2020