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2016 Summer Reading

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Summer Reading 2016: Writing the Poetry of an Invisible World

The homeless, in all their compelling individuality, speak their stories in this work

2016-Summer-Kalet

While we’re on summer hiatus, we want to make sure we’re still giving our readers something to think about, so NJ Spotlight is continuing its annual summer reading series. Every day we’ll feature an excerpt from a recent book -- from nonfiction to novels to poetry – with a New Jersey connection.

One of the common criticisms leveled against contemporary American poetry is that it is ornate and self-absorbed to a fault, and, in the harshest assessments, ultimately about no more than language itself. Hank Kalet’s “As an Alien in a Land of Promise” — along with the stark black and white photographs of Sherry Rubel — serves as a straightforward rebuttal to those allegations. Woven from the voices and observations of a homeless camp in Lakewood, NJ, the book is alive with the world (albeit one that typically remains unseen): “yesterday’s fashions, damaged goods / — a dining room chair, a bike with a bent fork, a plaid / sport coat …” (There is, no surprise, a faint echo of Whitman’s lists here and elsewhere in Kalet’s poem, Whitman, the poet of democracy who contained “multitudes.”)

Kalet also excels at quick, arresting portraits of the people he meets, often damaged in ways that are both visible and invisible: “He dropped the bike on an exit ramp, tore up / his shoulder, his knee, month / in rehab, plant closes, bike gone, / wife too, house, slept in his car / until he lost that too …”

And of instances of harsh, arresting beauty: “used pallets left / as donations, arranged as porches, the trees / rising like classical porticos and the men / and women in parkas and layers of sweatshirts, / breath visible as the sun recedes.”

PROLOGUE

When the first settlers came
they found a dense forest,
situated near off-beaten
Indian trails.
The pastor looks up
at the sun through the pines,
it’s always so dark back here,
he says, even on the brightest days.

They cleared the land,
built homes, a sawmill,
dammed the stream,
the Metedonck, that’s Lenape
for land of the tall timbers
the pastor says,
that carried
wood and later iron ore
from Joseph Brick's place
to Bay Head. Brick revived
the blast-iron furnace business
,
employed 200. Three
Partners Mill, then
Washington Furnace.
Rows of log huts, housing
employees, extended along
Clifton from First to Main
and between the two lakes.

Rows of plywood-and-tarp huts
this area was cleared
before we got here he says.

1.

Late Winter /
Early Spring

At the light, waiting to cross
against the menace
of a tractor-trailer, she sees
a man with a pickup
pick through discards, hoist
yesterday’s fashions, damaged goods
— a dining room chair, a bike
with a bent fork, a plaid
sport coat — into the open bed,
and she laughs and thinks,
that man’s got it right. The light
changes, she crosses, pulls
her laundry cart behind her
into the woods where
Michael picks out a song
on his 12-string guitar.

*

Amid the narrow trees, the scrub pines stretched
to the gray winter clouds, tents sprout,
small shoots of life in the empty woods.

Dark green tarps, black vinyl sheets. Plywood walls
that hold up paint-peeled doors, used pallets left
as donations, arranged as porches, the trees
rising like classical porticos and the men
and women in parkas and layers of sweatshirts,
breath visible as the sun recedes.

This is their home.

*

He wore a flag as a patch on the back
of his jacket when he rode, stars and stripes
spread broadly across his black leather
for all on the road to see as he gunned his bike
south down the Turnpike toward home
during the morning rush.

Wrists and shoulders sore from pumping the lug-nut gun,
knuckles scratched raw, fingertips cracked
from rubbing against the rough metal,
his daily trip a chance to feel the wind and breathe.

He dropped the bike on an exit ramp, tore up
his shoulder, his knee, month
in rehab, plant closes, bike gone,
wife too, house, slept in his car
until he lost that too.

*

14,137 homeless
in New Jersey, up
from 13,169
two years earlier,
10 percent unsheltered.




shelter, protection,
temporary lodging for the homeless poor,
maybe the trees, the tarps,
the tents. perhaps the cops,
or not, or the courts.
maybe the plywood
or a sleeping bag, a rough mattress
on a rotting pallet,
the leftovers, waste,
no-longer-wanted, donated

in the end, he says,
beggars can’t be choosers



Her son the nurse

addicted to heroin, lives
under a bridge in Camden
or on a side street near
the aquarium
I've lost track she says

smoke from her unfiltered cigarette
wisps upward

to the heavens she says

a blue tarp flaps
when there's a breeze
waves in greeting
waves

she sits, her bulk squeezed
into a white resin chair, tin
of pepper open
on the stump
of a felled maple
before her

two years here she says
cleaning lady's the first thing
they let go

right hand, forefinger
stained yellow,
middle one too

she pulls the blanket tight
around her shoulders
kicks her legs up
on the edge of the stump,
soft, brown dirt
in the treads of her boots

there are cross sections of trees — maple,
cherry, walnut, oak — stacked
in the clearing
or tumbled across
in piles
like the empty beer cans
beside her tent

the compound was cleared
when the reverend got here
cleared she says
that's what he told me

started with OxyContin, hurt
his back lifting a patient
they gave him meds
my son that is
I told him
he should get right
with god

I told him

broke into the cabinet
in the hospital,

fired of course.

Of course,

we tried everything.

Everything.
Get right
I told him.

Intervention.
Rehab.

He stole checks from me, cashed them,
would've emptied the account
if I didn't catch him.

Should've called the cops

but I'm a Christian

kicked him out
turned to heroin when
he couldn't get the Oxy.

he's got a tent
my ex told me,
there's a bunch of them together
shooting up I guess

*


INTERLUDE


She watches the rain
run down the sloped bank
from Route 9
into Lake Carasaljo.
Lakewood is a vibrant,
exciting place
— a natural beauty set
amidst parks, lakes and a quaint Victorian downtown.
They named it Bricksburg
for Joseph Brick, then
Lakewood, when the name of the town did not suit
the visions of its promoters.

Deposition: I live
in the woods in tent city
most of the time because
I have
Lakewood, simply,
a town of lakes
and woods. nowhere else
I do not have money
I am divorced

The town offers old-world charm,
a hometown feeling
and solid values along with
21st-Century amenities.


Shopping carts and duffel bags,
the plyboard camp
spreads across the culvert out
into the woods –

“As a group, they are atomized. They
have no face; they have no voice....”

machine hum of a generator,
crow of a rooster, diesel growl
of eighteen-wheelers
speeding toward
the nearby warehouses

on a rusted-legged table,
old blankets and cotton
dress shirts, a pair of shorts,
dresses, sweaters, the unwanted,
refuse, waste, leavings, scraps
from closets emptied
before a move

used to live with my mother
until she died and I fell
into depression. I waitressed,
worked as a home health aide,
a cashier, cleaned houses,

sometimes the owners
would give me clothes,
a dress she didn’t wear,
something for my son.

at the bent-legged table,
donations picked through,
collected, kept,
rubbish, rubble

one person’s trash
is another’s treasure, she says

*

Copyright 2016 by Hank Kalet, Piscataway House Publications.

Purchase As an Alien in a Land of Promise.

Learn more about Hank Kalet.

Learn more about Sherry Rubel.

Read more in 2016 Summer Reading
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