In 1972, when Michael Casey was 24, he won the Yale Younger Poets award with a book called Obscenities. Stanley Kunitz called it "the first significant book of poems written by an American to spring from the war in Vietnam." While Kunitz conceded that Casey's "anecdotal mode of narration" worked "partly because of the inherent excitement of his material," he quickly added that it worked "mostly because [Casey] is a natural and frugal storyteller, not given to self-indulgence; and because he does not have to strain for credibility--his honesty shines through; and because he listens."
Now, at age 50, Casey has published his second book, Millrat. Born in the old textile mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, the poet once worked as a kettleman in a dye house a few miles up the Merrimack River, in Lawrence. Today he teaches at a community college and lives in a prepschool town, but he has successfully reached back into his memory to write about the experiences of his fellow mill workers, using the same narrative techniques as before--speech that seems scribbled down by an invisible transcriber and depends on a punchline. This time the poet has won no prizes. Yet Millrat is at least as powerful as Obscenities.
Casey didn't see action in Vietnam; he was in the military police, assigned to the highway patrol and gate-guard duty. So it's no wonder that very little of Obscenities is about combat; instead, many of the poems illuminate the Army's pecking order and its hyperlogical nonsense. In Millrat, Casey explores the mill hierarchy, at times even more complex than the military's, since the rules there are less rigid and the consequences of disobeying them less certain. You may not lose your job, but you may lose face, which is often more valued. Here is his poem "foreman":
Walter walked over to Alfred
and asked him
to mix up the soap
when he got the chance
and Alfred said
sure he'd do it
when he got the chance
but he never did it
so Walter walked over to Ronald
Ron why don't ya make the soap up
when ya through what ya doin
and Ronald said
fuck you Walter
Ronald went and mixed up the soap
when he got the chance
Walter noticed it too
they didn't make Walter
the boss for nothing
In a spare, conversational tone, Casey conveys the uneasy camaraderie among the men: the dynamics of the mill "family"--their friendships, fights, feuds; and the sheer hard work of it ("I used to feel like/picking up my fuckin feet/putting em in my fuckin pocket/and walking on my fuckin knees"). But these poems aren't purely topical, any more than the Vietnam poems are. Kunitz rightly called Casey a storyteller, and the standard fiction disclaimer appears on Millrat's copyright page, because his real interest is human behavior. That's why he refrains from moralizing; that's why his poems are so rich.
In Obscenities Casey's narrator only once declaims the "obscenity" of war, in the last four chantlike lines of "A Bummer": "If you have a farm in Vietnam/ And a house in hell/Sell the farm/And go home." The Millrat narrator is even more reticent; he never comments outright on the spirit-deadening effects of mill work; but in a poem called "resignation," which ends the book, he "listens" as one of his co-workers tries to imagine a way out:
they don't like my work here
a friend of mine
his uncle owns a gas station
I can get a job there
whiles I'm lookin
for somethin even better
catch this I'll say
and I'll throw a hook at him
when he throws it back
don't you throw nothin at me
fuck this place
Dreams of escape presuppose a better world; but the cruelties and comedies in both Obscenities and Millrat spring from the same source: humanity's dark heart. For that reason, it is possible to think of Millrat as a sequel. I prefer to think of it as simply the earlier volume's equal--a genuine work of art.
Between the twenties and the fifties, when most New England textile mills like the one where Casey worked were closed or moved south, few people realized how short-lived those mills' Southern counterparts would be. Constance Pierce's ambitious first novel, Hope Mills, takes place in a Carolina mill town at a time (1959) when cotton was being replaced by Easy-Care synthetics. And as if there weren't enough signs of a dying economy in this fictional town on the Cape Fear River, the former home of Hope Mills's founder has become a funeral parlor.
Fifteen-year-old Tollie Ramsey thinks college could be her ticket to a brighter future, while her less-than-levelheaded friend, Lily Ann Jones, fantasizes about a Hollywood career. After all, she was first runner-up in a local beauty contest. But the university town of Chapel Hill, which Tollie visits one afternoon with her rich boyfriend Faircloth, is no more realistic a goal for a mill-town girl than movieland. For one thing, she has to help care for her mentally ill mother. For another, she I is pregnant by her former boyfriend, a Puerto Rican soldier from a nearby base, who has disappeared--shipped out, apparently, to one of those mysterious places in Indochina or Central America that newscasters have started talking about.
I won't be giving anything away by saying that, by novel's end, these spunky girls are no closer to leaving town than they were at the start. Hope Mills was given a Pushcart Editors' Book Award precisely because it isn't plotty enough to be commercially viable. What interests Pierce much more than plot is theme--the ways people try to achieve some measure of personal freedom without leaving home. As Tollie observes, "There was something about going out with the-next-thing-to-a-Negro that was almost as good as getting on a bus." It's also true that Tollie's mother, who made it all the way to New York, found it wasn't any different for her there than Hope Mills. "Just bigger, with snow." She returned, pregnant with Tollie, courtesy of a suburban Connecticut commuter.
For Tollie, a college diploma might mean a chance to live on a paved street; but she's also in pursuit of "a chance to show [her] `I' to the world some time or other in life." Lily expresses her larger goal more straightforwardly, admitting to Tollie the foolishness of her Hollywood dreams. "I'm done with that," she says of her former plans to adopt the stage name Lili Lorene. "Junk. Junk, and more junk. I'm either going to be Lily Ann Jones, like I guess I was doomed to be a long time ago, or I'm going to be somebody dignified. Like `Lillian.' I'd like to know what it feels like to have a minute's worth of dignity in this world."
Pierce expends a lot of energy on period details: the Mamie Eisenhower haircut, Rowdy Yates and Gil Favor on TV, song titles, book-club selections. I would have preferred a more convincing re-creation of a mill-town setting--an emphasis not on the time but the place. As it is, we barely see the mills, much less go inside them. The world of work doesn't permeate the characters, either their language or their inner lives. True, these are high school girls who haven't worked in the mills; but their relatives have. As anyone who has lived in a mill town knows, the experiences--to say nothing of the metaphors--have a way of seeping in along with the dust.
A larger complaint has to do with Pierce's insistence that Hope Mills is a novel of ideas rather than an opportunity for storytelling. This is most evident in her handling of the numerous minor characters in the book, all of whom personify certain programmatic concepts. Madame Lucretia, the town's illegal abortionist, says unconvincingly, "Nigger-gals been doing dirty work for white women a long time." That's shamefully true, but it doesn't ring true. And as Michael Casey's slim volume proves, that kind of authenticity makes all the difference.