Fight Songs  by Cal Freeman   Eyewear Publishing , 84 pages, November 10, 2017

Fight Songs

by Cal Freeman

Eyewear Publishing, 84 pages, November 10, 2017

 

REVIEWED BY BRIAN FANELLI

Following the 2016 election, much attention was given to the rustbelt and the white working-class. Nonfiction books like Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild, and White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg became bestsellers as pundits dissected the the Trump movement. Major news organizations sent reporters to places like Hazleton, Pennsylvania and Toledo, Ohio to interview the “Trump voter.” Yet, it is hard to capture the complexities and storied histories of these towns in short news segments that focus on a select group of voters. Cal Freeman’s Fight Songs is a book to read post-2016, a collection that offers a more nuanced overview of the rustbelt, much like Philip Levine’s body of work or Carl Sandburg’s 1916 collection Chicago Poems. A native of Detroit, Freeman presents a view of the Midwest that is more complex and diverse, containing voices of minorities that clash with police, junkies, decaying buildings, and pockets of the natural world crushed by corporate power.

The cover of Fight Songs features a cement-gray sky looming above a crumbling factory. Beneath the factory are yellow wildflowers that contrast the rest of the drab image. This image is a good representation of the way that Freeman depicts the natural world against these blue-collar cities. Against the ruin, something beautiful is trying to grow. “Genus Ephemera: Fight Song of the Fish Flies” is a three-page poem that blends memory with images of the city, natural world, and science. The stanzas are written like short prose poems that contain an immense amount of information. The poem begins,

 

In 1986 I saw a blimp land among glistening fish flies in an

abandoned airfield on the western shore of Lake Erie near

the Detroit River delta. The lake had recently rebounded

from its eutrophic period of the mid-twentieth century,

the blue-green algal blooms having dissipated as a result

of EPA-mandated reductions of point-source pollution

and with help, ironically, from the cyanobacteria-filter-

ing capabilities of the invasive zebra mussel.

 

Immediately, Freeman presents a specific time and place, but infuses it with religious history, science, and even EPA regulations. A few stanzas later, the poem broadens and connects the Detroit River delta to other parts of the Midwest, using the language of natural science to do so. Freeman shows how the ecosystem is connected and how one local issue has broader implications. In the fourth stanza, Freeman writes, “In Southeastern Michigan and Northeastern Ohio, / rivers flood the lake with phosphorus during run-off/from spring rain. Excess levels of phosphorus cause cya-/nobaceteria, or ‘blue-green algae.’” At times, the scientific language can be dense, but Freeman then returns the poem to more accessible language. Two stanzas later, he writes, “The fish flies were very good signs for the overall health/of the ecosystem, my uncle explained to us.” The final stanza is a warning about environmental devastation and our potential grim future. Suddenly, this local issue has deeper consequences. It reads,

 

Today Erie is a bed of pseudofeces and daggering little

shells. In recent years the toxic algal blooms began return-

tng to the western basin. They were first captured by a

blimp getting atmospheric coverage for a Cleveland Indi-

ans telecast. Two summers ago Toledo, Ohio’s municipal

water supply was contaminated by cyanobacteria. In cities

like Toledo, 2014 was also a summer free of the putrid

stench of fish flies, free of carcasses glommed onto side-

walks and awnings. Limnologists fear that by 2035…

 

 

This poem sets the tone and style for much of the collection in the way that it combines science with Midwestern history, while also connecting a local issue to larger environmental concerns. The history and health of one river, for instance, speaks to graver environmental problems. Several of the poems also serve as “fight songs” for the natural world and creatures that inhabit it, like fish flies, that are necessary for the overall health of the ecosystem.

Other fight songs are about specific locations and people. “Fight Song of the Lazar House” is set in the house of the speaker’s deceased grandparents. His aunt and uncle now live in it, and the poem mostly tells the story of his Aunt Cindy, who confesses that she hopes the uncle never returns, since he “backhands her / and calls her a whore, patently untrue.” Even though the house has new tenants, the speaker keeps retracing the past and imagines his grandparents still alive. He says,

 

I imagine there are

rooms for dust-caked books

and rooms for

loose pennies, rooms

for pills that were

never taken and

rooms for empty

hangers, rooms for

errant memories, for

rumpled gowns

and collared shirts,

paternal rooms, maternal

rooms, carpeted rooms

for moieties in flux,

rooms of throw

pillows for a dog

to tear apart,

rooms for too many

pills ingested,

for hepatotoxic

bleeding out of eyes.

 

Yet, at the end of the poem, he hugs Cindy as she puffs a smoke and her chained dog barks at him. People like Cindy are just as scrappy and downtrodden as some of the towns that Freeman describes, but they keep on living and surviving, despite the physical or mental abuse they suffer. In the case of Cindy, she overcomes her husband’s abuse and still exists, inhabiting the grandparents’ house, chain smoking as much as the grandmother chain smoked, rolling blue smoke “over her filmy tongue.”

The closing pages feature a series of epistles, many of which are directed at insects or animals, much like the fight songs. In “Epistle to a Bandog,” the speaker envies a dog and wishes he was able to do what a dog is allowed to do, admitting at one point, “I wish I knew where I belonged/and what my task was and where it ended. / I wish fences meant what they mean / to you. I am the grey image in a canine skull / the one relieved that you are on a chain.” By the end of the poem, the speaker resembles many of the towns and people that are described throughout the collection. “I am the smell of ammonia, dirt, and sweat. / I would growl in my direction too / if I had your booming voice.” He is imperfect and suspect, yet also someone who is sympathetic in the way that he wants to belong somewhere.

Fight Songs never romanticizes the Midwest. Drug habits, the homeless that wander places like Veterans Park, and environmental destruction are just some of the subjects Freeman addresses.  Yet for all of the book’s local concerns and desolate locations of burnt-out factories, there is a yearning for justice against corporate abuse, “the real thefts,” “not committed in the streets,” as Freeman writes in “Epistle to the Cops on a Wintery Night.” There is a hope that something will continue to live and grow, just like the flowers in the cover image.

 

Brian Fanelli’s most recent book is Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books), winner of the Devil’s Kitchen Poetry Prize. His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles TimesWorld Literature TodayThe Paterson Literary Review, and elsewhere. Currently, he teaches at Lackawanna College and blogs at www.brianfanelli.com.