By Marian Frances Wolbers
FootHills Publishing released the third and final volume of the labors of our fingertips: poems from manufacturing history in berks county by Jennifer Hetrick this past autumn. Swimming within these tender memory-poems are the jagged edges and startlingly soulful snatches of remembered machine work in the factories and businesses of Berks County decades ago. Faithful to the worker-narrators’ storytelling, Hetrick braids honorable, dignified word-portraits on her lyrical image-loom, whether a worker affixed left-hand side doors on military trucks or spent every day “securing strong stitches” on endless bottoms of belt loops. The detailed troubles and trials of men and women in stanzas that—short or long—perfectly match each person are juxtaposed with unabashed pride in the unique parts each individual played in the workplace, using hands and minds to produce not just hosiery, paint, or smoked meats but the totality of community, economy, opportunity, and familial necessity. Each alliteration, phrasing, and turn of thread in the line displays a range of emotion and circumstance: wry humor (“masking tape, a rare few worked with it as i did”); awareness of war; bodily stresses (“every night, i came home, felt fuzzy / wads of sweater aftermath in the creases of my neck, elbows”); and philosophical recall (“nestled in an italian neighborhood. / we were the only black family there. my neighbors / used to give us tomatoes from their backyards. i didn’t know / prejudice”). Generous and vivid are the pictures of the way things were, as well as the way folks speak and see themselves in their own mind’s eye. This is a gem on multiple levels in its sweet artistry, thoughtful voice, documentation of the past, and revelatory extraordinariness of ordinary men and women.
As a fellow writer and documenter of days, I am very holistically aware of how this work stretched well back across time and place and memory-worlds of these workers. It’s always been my impression that people record every silly little ant that crosses their picnic table at a birthday event, while ending life with virtually NO record of their long, long, much-longer-than-home-life hours spent in life’s labors under the thumb of a supervisor.
Marian Frances Wolbers is a self-confessed fan of interstices and author of novels (including Rider, St. Martin’s Press), short stories (The Southampton Review, Westview, Remarkable Doorways), drama (Return of the Sun Goddess, Holding the World, American Beauties) and poetry (Juked).