By Marjorie Maddox
In his often haunting and unsettling poetry collection, The History of Our Vagrancies, Jason Irwin travels between neighborhood bars, churches, soup kitchens, diners, prisons, and county fairs. The real setting, however, is the grit and blur between past and present, hopelessness and hope—that often hard-to-define mix of place and identity just outside the obvious. “Aren’t we all living in the parentheses?” he asks. “One pine in a forest, in a forest in a forest.” In this way, Irwin examines our inner and outer landscapes, as well as what we reject or claim as “home”—with all its traditions, beliefs, and parentage. He holds up for us “our vagrancies, the histories of our comings and goings,/the doubts that invade our greatest aspirations, and propel our return.//Welcome home they say. Welcome home and don’t come back.”
Not surprisingly, then, several poems address and confront what has been passed down—both literally and metaphorically—from parents to son. In the book’s opening piece, “Poem about My Father Disguised as the End of the World,” Irwin lays out many of the book’s themes: landscape as “a façade,” “the unavoidable reckoning/of empty rooms,” both influence and suspicion of religion, and a childhood of mixed messages. “My father was an asteroid,” he states. “Some nights I caught sight of him crashing/through space. Other times he was the whiskey/in my glass, the voice crying ‘No.’” From the start, we understand there will be few divine or human saviors in these poems—“they’re only smoke signals in the fog”—the poet must find his own murky way.
Sometimes such recognitions occur while confronting parent/child relationships. In “Photograph of My Father, 1959,” Irwin confirms “I know we would not/have been friends.” While “still needing you,/needing to blame you,” Irwin as son can’t escape “all the words/that turn to smoke/in [his and his father’s] throats.” Likewise in “My Father Asks Me to Go to Church,” he acknowledges his father’s “own troubled alchemies.” Though they share a belief in miracles, their definitions vary drastically. Add to this the mother. When, in “Soothsayer,” a local evangelist demands to take the young Irwin to church to be healed, the mother counters, “’I don’t have time for this shit.’” Thus, each parent influences how the author paradoxically views the world.
But let’s back up to how the author defines himself. In “The Condition of the Self as Related to Certain Trees,” he catalogs: “Small town, born and bred/my body…gnarled and irregular….Amputee, Dextrocardia….an old man’s hat….Son, lover, husband, fool.” In “Still Life with Leg Brace & Pontiac,” he juxtaposes his grandfather’s polished “’73 Grand Prix,” the possibilities inherent in his own first day of kindergarten, and how, underneath childhood’s fancy apparel, “[His] four-toed club foot fits/inside [his] shoe like the corpse of someone else’s foot.” Elsewhere in the book, he recognizes himself in a billboard at the county fair “advertising oddities” and as composing an alternate ending to life where “we’re happy with the people we’ve become.”
And yet in The History of Our Vagrancies, the poet also looks toward others—artists, authors, painters, philosophers, waitresses, old “codgers”—for insight. There’s the church visit to see rows of prisoners waving their hands, swaying, and singing “On Eagle’s Wings.” There’s Monk, Miles, and Bird and “a song/you find yourself riffing on/…all the colors/that kaleidoscope this dream/we keep dreaming….” There’s stealing Kerouac from the library, acknowledging the saint in Max at the soup kitchen, and recognizing in the silence and gaze of old men “the ruins of this company town,/where the sunbaked blacktop goes on/forever.”
In a particularly poignant poem, Irwin describes phantom pain—“Hammer hits to the synapse. Blood thumping like a subwoofer in 4/4 time”—as well as how “[i]t no longer startles [him], like cruelty…” At poem’s end, he explains, “I shift in my seat, and scratch at the empty air.” Similarly, in “Things We Don’t Like to Talk About,” the pain and confession are familiar: regret, grief, fear. Both phantom and real, the hurt also is ours.
And yet, in addition to this sometimes “delirium of shadows and muffled voices,” The History of Our Vagrancies hints at moments of optimism. In the prose poem “Instinct,” Irwin insists, despite evidence to the contrary, “[T]here’s a room inside each of us where everything we’ve lost is/gathered.” Elsewhere, he carves “epitaphs into the sticky wood [of a bar],/believing, as only the doomed and pure of heart believe,/that we’ll be remembered.” At its end, the collection sounds a call to acknowledge and accept beauty where we are: “Look at the two of use sitting at the table drinking wine./Each moment of our lives has brought us here. Each moment/could have as easily led us somewhere else.”
Yes, look. On these rust-belt streets, on these ordinary corners, you, too, may imagine how “the sky transforms,” how once “God held us in his hands.” You, too, may gawk “at the Polish waitress/as she dances across the tile floor” and even join in. “Sometimes it takes a lifetime/,” explains Irwin, “…to let go of the torn shirt of our failures.” In The History of Our Vagrancies, Jason Irwin encourages us to do just that.
By Jason Irwin
The Main Street Rag $14
Jason Irwin is the author of three full-length poetry collections, most recently The History of Our Vagrancies (Main Street Rag, 2020), and two chapbooks. He was a 2022 Zoeglossia Fellow and has also had nonfiction published in various journals including the Santa Ana Review and The Catholic Worker. He lives in Pittsburgh. Please see www.jasonirwin.blogspot.com.
Professor of English at Lock Haven University, Marjorie Maddox has published 13 collections of poetry—including Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (Yellowglen Prize); Begin with a Question (Paraclete, International Book Award Winner), and Heart Speaks, Is Spoken For (Shanti Arts), an ekphrastic collaboration with photographer Karen Elias—the short story collection What She Was Saying (Fomite); four children’s and YA books—including Inside Out: Poems on Writing and Reading Poems with Insider Exercises (Finalist International Book Awards), A Crossing of Zebras: Animal Packs in Poetry; I’m Feeling Blue, Too! (a 2021 NCTE Notable Poetry Book), and Rules of the Game: Baseball Poems—Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania and the forthcoming Keystone: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania (co-editor with Jerry Wemple, PSU Press). In the Museum of My Daughter’s Mind, based on her daughter’s paintings (www.hafer.work) + works by other artists, will be published in 2023 (Shanti Arts). Please see www.marjoriemaddox.com. (Author photo credit: Melanie Rae Buonavolonta)
Rebecca here, with many thanks to Marjorie for her wonderful review of Jason’s latest poetry collection. I can’t wait to pick it up! What are you reading and writing this month, as we dig into the new year? Let’s discuss in the comments.
Are you a Rust Belt poet or writer? Do you write book reviews–or conduct interviews of Rust Belt authors? If so, think of Rust Belt Girl for a guest post, like this one. And check out the handy categories above for more writing from rusty places.
Find me on FB and on IG and Twitter @MoonRuark
And follow me here. Thanks!