Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry
Research assistance: Stacey Balkun, Festival Assistant
Joseph Millar’s poem “Work Song” begins “Love picks its way through the gravel ruts/leading into the job site, past the truck tires/exploded nearby…” The apparent incongruity of love entering such a place is not lost on Millar, yet the absolute clarity with which he states his case convinces us he knows what he’s talking about. This is the place for love, wherever “this” happens to be.
But Millar is no sentimentalist. The attention he gives to physical detail in the poem as he moves into the worksite makes it clear he is a dedicated realist. He never glosses over what he sees, nor romanticizes the working life. Nevertheless, his “Work Song” acknowledges the countless ways work itself, whatever work that is, binds us to one another, even if only for a few hours on the job. And behind the relationships forged by men and women engaged in challenging, even brutal work, are the countless relationships each one of them carries, the responsibilities to spouses and children that justify enduring the work itself.
In essence, all of Millar’s poems are work songs. There are the many that capture the physical and personal costs and rewards of hard labor. He sings of the very real pain endured by those who must use their bodies to earn a living, and the deep, mostly silent satisfaction at completing an arduous task, and the pride in having put in a good day’s work. Having spent decades doing blue-collar labor as everything from a commercial fisherman to a telephone installation foreman, he knows first-hand the life he describes.
But for Millar the nature of work is more expansive than that. There is the work of trying to be a good son, husband, brother or parent; the work of facing down your fears, admitting your mistakes and accepting your faults; the work of pulling up the courage from somewhere inside yourself to persevere in the face of failure and disappointment; the work of loving.
In Millar’s poems, there is the knowledge that love, too, is work. Like any work worth doing, it requires our attention, care and serious effort, and there is always a price paid for negligence. His poems are often about the difficulty of doing the actual work loving another requires. But they never waver from their conviction that this is work, and work of an essential nature if we’re going to be human beings.
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