At Work
by Joan McNerney
21 Poems ~ 28 Pages
Price: $10.00
ISBN: 978-81-8253-783-5
To Order: Amazon

Reviewed by Michael Escoubas

Reading Joan McNerney’s latest collection, At Work, recalled my first day on the job as an apprentice printer in Bloomington, IL. As a youth of 17 years old, just out of high school, I felt more than a little intimidated in the world of men. The language, the brusqueness, the confidence of seasoned craftsman and me, barely shaving, never away from family and my small-town environment before. After a few days, I learned that these men, though rough around the edges, were gracious and helpful. They too, were once 17 and just beginning the rewarding enterprise we call “work.” For this young apprentice, the “enterprise” lasted 48 years; printer was the only job I ever had.

The 21 poems comprising At Work include “everyday sorts of jobs.” Grocery cashier, housewife, retail salesclerk, waitress, delivery guy, and many more. These are poems which hit me where I live. I’m betting this will be the case for most readers. We are people trying to make financial ends meet in tough economic times.

For example, a waitress named Sally, “thought everything was / up to luck and she had zero. / Her chances got swept / away with yesterday’s trash.” // McNerney doesn’t sugar coat Sally’s life. At the end of the day after stopping to pick up a few groceries, she struggles to open her door . . . readers will be surprised at what greets her as she enters.

McNerney’s style is free verse rather than classical forms. She chooses words appropriate to her theme: folks living and coping with life through their jobs. Her poems appear in couplets, tercets, quatrains and other stanza variations. Rhyme is rare, but clarity and wisdom are hallmarks. I get the impression that there is no silver spoon in Joan McNerney’s mouth. No pretense or condescension. She has lived out her poems. This is why they are good poems.

One of the anomalies of our times is the rise of the “delivery” person as a major component on the current economic scene. We depend on delivery people, now, more than ever. In honor of this heretofore under-appreciated skill, I am proud to reprint “Delivery Guy” in full:

Ray comes all winter
with office supplies.
He calls female workers
“gorgeous.” Smiles
spread like wild fire.

Besides reams of paper,
ink cartridges, he carries
the sun. Says it fits perfectly
into his bowling bag.

Sprinting upstairs, balancing
boxes of staples, paper clips,
pens, Ray shouts, I brought
the sun with me today, slung
it right over my shoulder.”

He brings all day glow …
what they want on
those dark icy afternoons
to make them
feel sizzling warm.

Joan McNerney’s knack for highlighting the personalities of her characters is worth the book's modest asking price. The people who populate her poems are real and relatable. For example, the “Long Haul Driver” liked his job at first, but for reasons inherent in the job, eventually, “Coffee was not enough.” The poem develops with a poignant ending that tells the “not-so-pleasant” truth.

This is a collection worth your time. In fact, I see this volume as a valuable text for the classroom. Why would I say this? Elizabeth Bishop once said of poetry, “There is enormous power in reticence.” At Work is a study in poetic restraint … equal measures of truth, honesty, and humility. Lessons any aspiring poet should acquire.


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