“In this way, most of the work of writing a poem begins before any of its lines are written. The life of the poet is the well from which all the possibilities of the poem exist. If the poet has adequately filled their life with a richness, then the well will be full, and the poem will flow from this fullness. The writing of the poem is always occurring. In this sense, a poet is always writing.”
This morning, four poems from my manuscript “What Cannot Be Salvaged” were published by Parhelion Literary Magazine.
The poems deal intimately with my family’s business–an automotive salvage yard. ‘Poetic’ is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a salvage yard, right?
When you spend so much time around an automotive recycling facility, you notice how very much the automobile is like the body—a conglomerate of job-specific parts intricately assembled to produce a mobile and incredible machine. Tubes, intake, and hoses like veins. Outer metal panels like skin. The engine, a heart, transmission, a pair of lungs. The engine computer, a brain. And it is intrinsically fallible, eroding as anything does through time. Drive any vehicle long enough and something will inevitably fail. The daily witness of vehicles smashed beyond repair, their good parts picked out to be resold, the fluids drained and recycled, their stripped chassis crushed and stacked for steel scrappers—it reminds one all too well of the fate of the body. This process of automotive recycling becomes intimate and familiar. The poems in this selection occupy this space of introspection, which is directly informed by this outward observation. This daily immersion allows a distillation of the “place” in question into these fundamental elements, this parsing out of what a poet might notice about a salvage yard. I did not intend to write “salvage yard poems,” but I am pleased with their seemingly organic appearance.
of us when our own vehicles
arrive in some salvage yard
will be picked through without
care, without consequence.
~ from “Dismantle Hoist Talk”
The automotive recycling facility in question is my family’s business, founded in 1981 by my Opa. He and his brothers and sisters all emigrated to the United States from Holland in the years after the Second World War, settling in South Bend, Indiana and starting many businesses which thrive to this day. Yet while this element of place is central, as it grounds the poems in an interesting way in space and time, it is the persons who inhabit the space which really advance the poems. There are deep family roots, which complicates things in all the ways you might expect—my bosses are my dad and my uncle (see “The Grotto”). And beyond this, the Yard (as it is referred to in the family), employs a good deal of Mexican immigrants. Through the years, I have come to know their families. I’ve attended birthday parties and weddings. Listened to sons tell me how they are unable to visit their dying father or mother. Fathers have told me of their son’s deportation. When you witness such things, they inform your worldview. It becomes abundantly clear which political entities have never known immigrants intimately—their willful vilification of the vulnerable to their own goals of power-retention becomes unforgivably abhorrent.
at the remnants of a Studebaker, the chassis burned a fragile red-brown
that crumbled at the touch
of my one finger, like the sufferer finally allowed to die.
~ from “The Grotto”
And as with any business that has been in operation for nearly forty years, with much of the same staff, there are stories which have become a sort of mythos. As I wrote poems, I found these “legends” of the Yard to lend the most interesting topics for writing. There have been numerous yard dogs: in the past, it was common practice for salvage yards to have a yard dog or two for an added security measure. Break-ins or thefts in the night have not been wholly uncommon—the idea was that the knowledge of yard dogs on the premises would deter theft. The poem “Habitat” explores one such yard dog. Here is another story that has not yet made it into a poem: Opa would greet customers with one of the dogs at his side, its tail happily wagging and seemingly innocuous as Opa scratched its neck, and him saying in his thick Dutch accent, “He’s totally harmless.” Only then would he shift his hand from a deep scratch to a fistful of fur—a harmless grip that was their mutual signal for playtime—and on cue the dog would growl deeply. The customer would then jump in surprise. And out would come Opa’s signature sheepish grin. Other mythos and legends of the Yard are found in the yet unpublished collection from where these poems originate: the goose, the fires, ghosts in the warehouse, animal sightings between the rows of cars, break-ins, and peace lilies.
A red-tailed hawk has nested in a front end, the cut
noses of vehicles on pallets and racking stacked
three levels high to divide properties, headlamps
like eyes on a medieval display of heads, chromed
grills teeth locked in rigor mortis.
~ from “Habitat”
All this consideration of mythos is linked heavily with memory. It is an important trend in my work. While poems in “What Cannot Be Salvaged” do center partially around these salvage yard poems, the others spring from memory in more personal reflections. Our memory is fundamentally tied to our identities—and like our bodies it is so intrinsically fallible. We struggle to remember what we did the day prior. Our knowledge of our past experiences is merely an impression of that moment—tastes, smells, visions, the feeling of what it was like to be alive in that moment in time. And these precious moments are available only to our innermost selves—we cannot share memories with others in their purest forms (as we know them). And yet we cannot even completely trust our own recollections—what do our own biases blind us from, what does our Ego keep buried, what has been forgotten? And as the unending process of the dismantling of vehicles in the salvage yard reminds us, a final reckoning awaits the body and mind. What makes us, us, is ultimately another thing to be salvaged, to be recycled by the universe. I think what can make poetry so powerful is that it is an honest attempt to sublimate this intimate form of personal memory into a shareable form. It is suddenly recorded and placed outside of the mind. And when a reader gets it, they really get it. This gets right at the yearning that makes poetry so essential and fundamental to the poet—a desire and need to be heard and understood. It is a desire to transmute the beauty of a moment to another person. Poetry that can do this then becomes essential to the reader. It is like a lifeline thrown to the lost at sea, a tether, which pulls against the seemingly unquenchable loneliness of the human condition. The act of reading and writing poetry becomes a sort of antidote. This is the importance and power of all art in the world.
Read the poems here: https://parhelionliterary.com/austin-veldman/