Place Neither Vilified nor Sanctified: Larry O. Dean on Karen Harryman’s Auto Mechanic’s Daughter


Auto Mechanic’s Daughter, Karen Harryman, Black Goat/Akashic Press

 

Akashic’s independent Black Goat imprint espouses a commitment to well-crafted poetry with a focus on experimental and/or thematically challenging work. The series also aims to give voice to underrepresented groups such as women. Karen Harryman’s Auto Mechanic’s Daughter is indeed skilfully crafted, but far from any definition of experimental. What it is, simply, is beautifully written, and as solid a debut as I’ve read in some time.

 

Auto Mechanic’s Daughter is broken into four sections, examining Harryman’s Kentucky roots as well as her adopted southern California. In For Some Reason, an early entry in the book, time and memory elide, the poem’s creation sparked by a serendipitous image:

For some reason

when I see the young mother

underneath the mercado sign

pushing a stroller on Alvarado Street

and her older daughter, a dark cloud

sulking behind her,

I think about the time my mother

slapped me hard on the cheek

and I slapped her back. (22)

I like how Harryman declines to find or clarify a definite answer as to where her mind takes her—“for some reason”—and then us, as readers; we certainly benefit from her willful meandering. Imagine that opening line excised—the poem would be more declarative, and less ruminative. From this quiet, but evocative beginning, Harryman slips back into a reverie of her own troubled past, this mother-daughter dynamic glimpsed on a busy Los Angeles boulevard igniting multiple sensory reactions:

            I was sitting on the lip

of the claw-foot tub. I remember

imprints of brown and yellow seashells

on the linoleum, the green and white flowers

of the threadbare towel wrapped around her head.

How when my own hand sprang back at her,

I felt like we’d jumped

off a wall together, too high,

like there was no way we’d land in one piece,

no way we’d walk away from this one. (22)

 

Her sense of place and detail is fine-tuned, yet deceptively nonchalant—the claw-foot tub, with its seashell motif, and mom’s shabby flower-pattern towel paint a picture of domestic regularity disrupted by the casual violence of mother on daughter, and daughter in return. Harryman describes her reaction as impersonal—“my own hand sprang back at her”—as if she had no choice in the matter, as if the hand itself was the instrument of recompense, acting on its own volition. Psychologically, she disassociates herself from the act, at least in the past, but not its consequences, which continue to haunt her in the present. For Some Reason concludes on a note on contrition:

I remember everything,

how tired she looked,

the swollen rims of her eyes

already reddening with tears, everything,

except why we had argued,

what I had wanted

that she couldn’t give. (22-23)

 

The title poem again scrutinizes familial relationships. Harryman’s sense of place is assured, but her tone is carefully illusive:

Evenings after dinner, after dishes,

when she’s looking up, searching for a word like fulcrum

to describe the night sky resting, with its few bright stars,

on the palm trees in her front yard,

she remembers greasy Saturdays

 

in the shop on Parker Street,

the bundles of red and blue rags, the pans

of black liquid pushed to the wall, soot clouds rising

from the old sofa worn to the color of flushed midnight. (26)

 

The segue from meditative state to unctuous reality is abrupt, but cautiously designed. Auto Mechanic’s Daughter begins much the same as For Some Reason, with an image or situation opening the door to memory and memorializing, its impetus lying in the main character’s mental deliberation of the word fulcrum, which itself becomes the fulcrum for a different poem than she is writing, an elegy to the titular father. As the poem continues, it rewinds even further into the past, resolving surprisingly as well as poignantly:

She barely knew him then, her mother’s boyfriend

hunched under the hood of a Ford. At closing time

he took off his cap, loosened his ponytail.

 

Lifting her to the rusted fender, he said, Spark plug,

carburetor, intake valve. He said, Filter, fluid,

radiator, hose. He pointed to her heart, said, Oil

is the blood. Oil is the blood, like it meant everything.

Pointed to her heart like the world could balance there. (26-27)

 

Balance is what Harryman achieves in Auto Mechanic’s Daughterbetween the emotional components, which give these poems their juice, and the minute details, which make them imagistically interesting. The book’s milieu vacillates between the working class south and modern day California, but one of Harryman’s easily underestimated strengths is that neither place is vilified nor sanctified. Consider The Vista:

In our new neighborhood

we have one of those restored movie houses

that shows first-run movies, the best

of the past and the present, digital sound,

great popcorn and rows spaced wide enough

to drive a golf cart through.

The red velvet seats, the baroque likenesses

of pharaohs and goddesses under-lit

by geometric sconces—

it’s so beautiful Kirk doesn’t bristle

when the stranger’s kids in the front row

become restless, run up and down the aisles,

chase each other through the rows.

When the lights dim, he grips my knee,

a twinkly-eyed boy again, remembering

the first time he saw a light saber.

We’ve been together six years.

Every day is better than the last.

Outside, underneath the marquee,

Sunset Boulevard is all neon and streetlights.

There is a blue bicycle chained to a rack.

It has pinstriped fenders,

a wide wicker basket with plastic flowers.

I want to touch it. I want to touch everything

to know it’s real. (48)

 

LA is the movie capital of the world, but the poem doesn’t devolve into the myth of Los Angeles just because Harryman is writing about “one of those restored movie houses/ that shows first-run movies, the best/ of the past and the present.” That would be too easy. Such a venue is more common in big cities, but you don’t have to live in one, or some place like it to picture it through Harryman’s poetry. What she wants us to take away from The Vista is not merely a deft depiction of this architectural gem, but the thoughts and feelings of the people plopped down in its wide aisles and seats, clutching boxes of “great popcorn,” Harryman included. “Every day is better than the last,” she says, and that realization, for her, is rooted in the ephemeral as well as the physical—the blue bike, with its “pinstriped fenders…wide wicker basket with plastic flowers.” It’s not enough to see it all—one must “touch everything/ to know it’s real.” The poems of Auto Mechanic’s Daughter take us along on various journeys where it’s not just the destination that’s important, or the trip, but both.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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