On the occasion of Mark di Suvero at Crissy Field, SFMOMA curator of public programs Frank Smigiel and poet and playwright Kevin Killian co-organized a small chapbook of poetry, beautifully hand-produced by Andrew Kenower and Lara Durback. We are posting selections from FIELD WORK on Open Space throughout the fall.
The Center of Gravity
Steel is an incredibly cooperative substance, I read in an art review. Mark di Suvero’s mammoth creations won’t tumble or crumble under their own weight, I read. He loves to sneer at gravity; he creates joy of spirit out of steel. He’s like an acrobat feeling for that invisible point, a steel whisperer, madly in love with the brawny alloy, coaxing it into graceful forms, Tyrannosaurus-sized, carnival orange, energetic and muscular, yet seeming to defy gravity like a multi-ton dancer who has lighted on the lawn. Steel geometries connect earth and sky, space and time. Primordial elements, physics, music, poetry, philosophy find their way into the mix, di Suvero’s wizardry melding the monumental and the intimate, humanizing steel. Over and over I read feisty, gravity-defying, bright.
In the rust belt where I was raised there was no poetry in steel. No art. No music. Steel meant money. Steel meant hellish, smokestacks spitting fire and black clouds. In grade school they showed us a movie about the making of steel so that we would understand where our fathers and uncles went to all hours of the day and night, returning with blackened hands impossible to clean. At 3000º the air turns a hazy orange and the solidest things—automobiles, box cars—melt and seethe. Molten metal flaring in huge cauldrons, molten metal glowing white, coronaed by yellow, coronaed by orange. The skin of goggled men liquid with sweat, men wincing like marshmallows at a friggin’ campfire. I sat there in my gradeschool deskchair staring at the pull down screen, terrified by the mill’s liquid fire, terrified of the molten center of the earth, the molten beginning of the universe, of the unremitting fires of hell they told us about every Sunday. Hell was a steel mill that boiled through all eternity, grimy men prodding an unimaginably hot vat of vile bubbling goo.
My brother operates a crane at Inland Steel, which means he uses levers and dials to lift and move things that weigh many tons. I imagine him hovering above the mill in a small windowed box. Though the window he looks down at the glowing, spitting, steaming vats—the hinge that holds the box cracks and my brother’s cage plummets into the thick frenetic brew, incinerated as it’s sucked into a lurid orange and yellow downward spiral. This isn’t accurate but I can’t eradicate this image of my brother hovering precariously above a raging inferno. Yellow and white sparks white clouds tons of hot danger red and yellow smoke. I feel my face melting. That’s why you go to college, so you don’t have to do stuff like this. Orange yellow white glow spark. The crane my brother operates is a bridge crane. Parallel rails are attached to elevated wall structures. The bridge is a beam that runs between the two rails. A trolley with a hoist mechanism moves back and forth along the bridge. My brother sits in the trolley. It’s air conditioned in there, so it’s considered a cushy job. My brother got bladder cancer when he was 40, a disease, he tells me, that old men get. He blames the steel’s toxic fumes. My brother is used to working double shifts for weeks on end—and the huge double time salary that brings in. (It’s cheaper to pay the overtime than hire more people, because of the cost of benefits.) Now that his mill has been bought “by the Japanese,” his hours and his benefits have been cut. Regardless, he remains a staunch Republican because Democrats kill jobs. At the mill, only the blacks and Hispanics vote Democrat. Men enter the steel mill clean and exit roasted exhausted covered in grime. Men take their paychecks across the street to the casinos who await them 24 hours a day. Most of the mills in Northern Indiana have closed. My brother works in the sole remaining mill. He’s a crane operator, I keep trying to make this more poetic, but I can’t a mind like a steel refinery, prosaic and terrible I had the tackiest of childhoods but it was not poor. The steel of nails and hammers and organized labor kept our family in Sears Roebuck abundance. Reaches for gravity-defying feats. Feisty, gravity-defying, bright. Gravity does not bend. Art writers lie. Art lies. It was the lie of art I wanted more than anything else as a child. I lived in notebooks, lying on my bed writing feverishly along their cool blue lines, while in the living room my father the carpenter smokes and cusses and Mom’s in the kitchen and my brother is out engaging in the juvenile delinquent behavior that will make him a high school drop out. In my notebooks I dreamed I knew Latin and I lived in the Alps, where I hovered above the world craneless, educated and beautiful, with a mind lofty and brilliant enough to defy.
Dodie Bellamy’s latest book is Cunt Norton, from Les Figues Press. Her chapbook Barf Manifesto was named best book of 2009 under 30 pages by Time Out New York. Other books include the buddhist, Academonia, Pink Steam and The Letters of Mina Harker, and Cunt-Ups, which won the 2002 Firecracker Alternative Book Award for poetry.