A few years ago, poet Sandee Gertz Umbach and I took a workshop together at Chautauqua. At that time, Sandee, who is from the Johnstown, Pennsylvania area was working on a series of poems about the Johnstown Flood. I’ve since lost touch with Sandee, but was super excited to see her smiling face, with her first book, The Pattern Maker’s Daughter, at AWP (via Lori May’s blog). And I was even more excited to see that her book is from Bottom Dog Press, one of my favorite publishing companies. And then…I got to see her again at ASA!
The Pattern Maker’s Daughter is an exploration of the Johnstown area. Johnstown, Pennsylvania has become synonymous with the infamous flood of 1889. Yet, what most people don’t know is that Johnstown has been haunted by many other floods, including floods that took place in the years of 1936 and 1977. Sandee, through her book, explores the human side of these historical floods, focusing mostly on the flood of 1977. For example, in “Johnstown Flood 1977, The Day After” a lone speaker conveys her world as a place where “Death and Disease slowly unearthed, bodies hid unturned/on the river banks.”
However, I don’t want to suggest that this poetry book is a book of floods. It is true that the people of the Johnstown area may be haunted by its history, but to solely define any given place by disaster is problematic (And I’m very happy to say that Sandee does not do this!) Instead, Sandee weaves personal narratives between her works about the area’s floods — works that display working class/blue-collar resilience and hope. Some of these works explore domestic life including “Last Light” where a young persona sits outside and listens to “a chorus of housedresses shifting/Brillo sliding across the stainless.” Other poems take a look at the work of those in factories, sometimes taking on wishful tones as in “Prosperity, 1952” where an unnamed narrator explains that “When times were good and the mills hot, my Dad worked the crane/and raked in the overtime. On 191 David Street, the fridge was full/of sirloin and salmon. Mom said that’s when Dad was his biggest/on top of the rig all day, double chipped ham sandwiches for lunch.” However, my favorite poems are the poems that explore the lives of women on the factory floor. I especially love Wendy who is found in the poem “The Bra Factory” and is described as “the quietest 36C the plant has ever seen”.
Stories often are cornerstones of working class poetry and readers will certainly notice the strong narrative strands that run through this book, but I was also pleased to see other works, more lyrical poems. In one poem, “Part of This Earth” the persona likens herself to the physical space around her: “Digging in childhood holes, I see/roses grown from thin patches/seed scattered over the cracked/alley-yards, school children picking/at slim violets”.
For those of you interested in sense of place or working class poetry, this book is for you. Mixing both narratives and lyrical poetry, Sandee is able to explore blue-collar identity without falling into cliché. Check out Bottom Dog Press for this collection and other great works!