Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

John Henry’s Partner Speaks by David Salner

WordTech Editions, PO Box 541106, Cincinnati, OH 45254.  104pp

Review by Hannah Langhoff           

 

On the cover of John Henry’s Partner Speaks, a wood carving depicts two steel drivers at work.  One stands poised with his hammer over his head, preparing to strike.  His partner, holding the spike in place for him, kneels with his face upturned as though praying. 

            The danger, beseeching, and poised power in the image are perfectly captured by David Salner’s new collection of poetry.  In his poems, Salner adopts the voice of characters whose lives have been marked by marginalization and hardship: former slaves, prison inmates, immigrants and, most notably, the working class.  He gives expression to their private thoughts and reveals the injustices they suffer.  In the process he reimagines the life of a folk hero who has become a symbol for manual laborers in America. 

            The poems in the first section of the book, “When I Was a Thing,” are diverse, covering everything from an eerie night shift in a steel plant (“Furnace”) to a chance encounter with a Peruvian shepherd (“Wyoming”).  They are like a series of highly-detailed photographs that focus the viewer’s attention on the unusual elements in a seemingly unremarkable scene.  In “Never Leaving Duluth,” the speaker watches a couple struggling over a bottle of liquor.  The altercation is vivid but has an interesting ambiguity: Is it angry or playful, or both?  “My Father Catches Me Off-Guard” describes the simple occurrence of an elderly man waiting as his son comes home from work.  But it quickly becomes clear that time has reversed the two men’s roles in the relationship, with the father a “vulnerable child” and the son musing, “Perhaps I should take him outside…and teach him to ride a bike or throw a football.” 

            Salner’s experiences working at manual trades frequently appear in his poetry.  Although “Furnace” evokes a monstrous beauty in the machinery and molten metal of a steel mill, it does not idealize the lives of those who work there; the work is dangerous as well as exhausting, and they know that they will eventually lose their jobs when the plant closes.  Also, the workers’ humanity is often ignored by their employers.  In “When I Was a Thing,” the poem that gives the section its title, a laborer in a pellet plant is viewed more or less as a part of the machinery by a visitor to the factory: “And I laughed to myself / at the secret, which he’d never know: ‘There is a human being inside.’”     

            The second section, “In Dade Coal Mine,” is based on the plight of Lancaster LeConte, an elderly black man and former slave unjustly accused of receiving stolen goods.  LeConte was sentenced to three years’ hard labor mining coal and died after serving two.  Through a series of fictional fragments and letters from LeConte to his one-time master, Salner describes the dangers of the mine and the brutal treatment that the convicts suffer at the hands of their guards. 

            Writing in the voice of Lancaster LeConte, Salner creates a complex and believable personality.  LeConte is deferential and polite in his letters to the man who once owned him, but as time goes on he begins to reproach him quietly for his failure to help: “I do not put a price on years of service - / although they weren’t freely given - / but does that mean there is no debt?”  In Letter IV he details the risky and difficult process of mining coal, a skill of which his old master is blissfully ignorant, and concludes, “If there were any justice in the words we use, / I’d be the Master.” 

            It is an ironic observation, and irony is an important element of “In Dade Coal Mine.”  The action takes place in the late 1880s, more than twenty years after slavery was outlawed in the United States, but in the labor camp nothing seems to have changed.  The convicts are black, overseen and beaten by white guards, shot to death if they try to escape or help others escape from cave-ins.  Fragment II, a flashback to 1865, begins “We no longer fear our masters / for they have lost the war, and our freedom/ is an everyday thing.”  Taken alone, the fragment is optimistic, but knowing that LeConte died in what was essentially a different form of slavery, it becomes tragic.  In the final fragment LeConte dreams of being like a bird, free to travel wherever he wants and live by the skills he has learned, and hopes that in a hundred years “There won’t be any prisoners, only birds.”  But in his afterword, Salner points out that Lancaster LeConte’s dream still has not been realized – convict labor, torture, and capital punishment continue in U.S.-run prisons throughout the world.  From the pre-Civil War era to Lancaster LeConte’s day to the present, some forms of injustice have yet to be overcome. 

            The third and final section, “John Henry’s Partner Speaks,” blurs the boundaries between history, poetry, and legend.  It is supposedly a transcription of taped interviews with Phil Henderson, a former railroad worker and the best friend of famed steel-driver John Henry.  (Henderson is Salner’s invention, but various elements of the poems – the lives of workers on the C & O Railroad and the Monongah Mine disaster, for example – are factual.) 

Salner’s poetry has a simple conversational quality, with the line breaks serving to emphasize the rhythms and focus the reader’s attention on certain words or phrases.  The style functions especially well here, in what is meant to be a transcribed interview. 

            According to legend, John Henry agreed to race a steam drill to show railroad officials that human workers were more efficient.  He won the competition but died shortly thereafter, supposedly having worked himself to death.  Salner changes the manner of John Henry’s end and, in doing so, makes the story less about a conflict between a man and a machine and more about a worker standing up to the corrupt railroad officials. 

            Like the old ballad in which the young John Henry proclaims “Hammer be the death of me,” the theme of mortality is constantly present in Phil Henderson’s memories.  John and Phil witness a hanging and discover a cemetery for black workers killed in the tunnel.  When an accident occurs, the surviving workers are given liquor to calm their nerves; on one such occasion John reflects, “Some day the whiskey’s gonna be on me.”  This could be explained fancifully as John predicting his own death, but is more likely just a common attitude among the tunnel workers.  They have seen so many accidents that they take the nearness of death for granted. 

            Despite this fatalism, Phil Henderson’s account is much more upbeat than Lancaster LeConte’s, since Phil has companionship to sustain him where LeConte did not.  “In the Dust of the Great Bend Tunnel” is partly a dialogue between John and Phil, calling back and forth in time with the blows of John’s hammer.  Despite the difficult and dangerous working conditions, the music of their calls and the sense of friendship and trust between the two men makes the moment almost joyful.  Years after John’s death, when Phil is working in a West Virginia coal mine, he witnesses this same camaraderie overcoming racial barriers: “I never saw white men cry over Black men / until I worked on that mine rescue team.” 

            John Henry’s Partner Speaks is summed up by “The John Henry Song,” in which Phil Henderson explains the kind of work symbolized by his friend’s story: “I don’t mean glory work, not the kind of work / that makes you famous.”  The miners, steel drivers, and factory workers in the poems know what it is to labor without fame or glory, but in the legend of John Henry and the poetry of David Salner, they have finally been given a voice. 

 

 

Hannah Langhoff is a recent graduate of Truman State University. Her fiction has appeared in Cicada Magazine. She lives in Indiana.