Poetic industry

Letterpress poster by Cory Wasnewsky, Monserrat College of Art, Class of 2014.

Letterpress poster by Cory Wasnewsky, Monserrat College of Art, Class of 2014.

What fun happenings fill Salem days, many of them created, supported or influenced by PEM. Think of June’s phenomenal singing by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, May’s captivating Massachusetts Poetry Festival and the ever-expanding Salem Film Fest in late winter. Into the ferment goes our local colleges, teeming with creative students, teachers and programs. And so it was on July 2, along the Improbable Places Poetry Tour that PEM editor and recent haiku blogger, Susanna Brougham, read her work.

2 Susanna reading

Susanna Brougham reading her work, photo © 2014 Adam Kooken

The evening’s presentation by local poets of all ages and backgrounds took place inside Salem’s hulking  power plant that borders the harbor. This facility — an engineering work of art and a 20th-century monument to industry — is about to undergo a complete transformation into a more energy-efficient enterprise.

power plant

Photo courtesy of Montserrat College of Art

Now in its fifth year and organized by the creative writing chair at Montserrat College of Art, Colleen Michaels, the Improbable Places Poetry tour gathers local poets and listeners at a variety of venues, each place inspiring a theme for the evening. Past venues have included a flower shop, a mechanic’s garage and a tattoo studio.

This week’s host — Salem’s fifty-year-old power plant — almost stole the show by offering the public a rare chance to see the vast, complicated, rather spellbinding Great Turbine Hall, all metal and hard surfaces. In one area, Montserrat art students had mounted an exhibition titled Across the Bridge, also geared to the venue’s past and future.

4 Great Turbine Hall

Great Turbine Hall, photo by John Andrews, Social Palates

5 student art exhibition

Student exhibition, photo by John Andrews, Social Palates

6 Listeners at the reading

Rapt listeners at the reading, photo by John Andrews, Social Palates

The poetry reading was, in part, a farewell to the power station in the Salem community — we even heard a recording of the turbine’s deafening “voice.” But once the poets began reading their industry-related works, the evening shifted to an incandescent realm of words, imagery, imagination, speculation and humor. Listeners were easily engaged with lyrical perspectives on a variety of themes — grids, laborers, history, ecology, power and the industrial landscape. The juxtaposition of massive turbine to evocative poet escaped no one and added a magical element.

PEM’s participating poet drives frequently to Maine and shared a work inspired by roadway construction. Experience a taste of the rare evening at the soon-to-vanish turbine hall, where new voices rose and still echo, somewhat in tribute:

Night Paving

The road transects the dark and I am on it.
Gold letters say expect delays and a glow-

in-the-dark man flicks a stop sign where
upraised bars of light mark out the theater

of operations. If I sniff aright, I am paused
among the flammable. A lit-capped worker

drives a roller as others spread mounds
of pitch-black glints. They move with alacrity

as if they have waited long idle hours
to feed the road like this. Backhoes nearby

rest, solid peace. In engine chambers
usefulness cools. Those machines moved

earth but now let effort cease,
let the workers tend the surface.

They all do geology: devout action,
devout rest. Let glaciers and lava respect

them as equals. Time and mileage glimmer
on the dash as I let the mind, its mundane

delvings, go dark so I can listen
to gears, scrapes, materials resetting.

I hear the road widen. Then the prompt
to ignition—I’m waved ahead past orange

fool’s caps, past end construction,
driving smooth, a part of night.

Susanna Brougham, “Night Paving” was first published in Smartish Pace, volume 20, April 2013

On your next visit to PEM, enjoy a fresh look at the museum’s many artworks that complement themes of work, power and industry, such as the watercolor series depicting China’s porcelain manufacturing.

7 Porcelain manufacture

Packing the Porcelain, c. 1825, Guangzhou, China, gouache on paper, museum purchase 1983; one of 18 similar watercolors located in Asian Export Art: China

One Comment

  1. Phoebe Tanner says:

    I saw the 18 watercolors on the making of porcelain in China about 10 years ago. I work with porcelain and have thought of the paintings many times over the years. Recently, I started to read Edmund de Waal’s new book, The White Road, a history of porcelain, and I have once again wanted to to see the images. Is there any way you can email me a digital copy or if they have been published in a book, can you let me know the title? I would be grateful.

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