The Pattern Maker’s Daughter
by Sandee Gertz Umbach
Bottom Dog Press
Perfect Bound, 83 pages
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Brian Fanelli
The discussion and attention drawn to class issues, thanks in part to the Occupy Wall Street movement and debate over austerity measures in Europe, is not solely for newspaper headlines. The current U.S. Poet Laureate, Philip Levine, is the quintessential blue-collar American poet, who made his name known decades ago by writing about Detroit’s struggles and its impact on the average Joe. Other poets are also giving praise to working men and women. Sandee Gertz Umbach’s debut collection of poems, The Pattern Maker’s Daughter, is loaded with poems appropriate for the times. The hard workers and survivors that populate her poems would get along well with characters in a Bruce Springsteen song or Levine’s poetry. The farmers, mechanics, and other laborers that live in her poems struggle to overcome hard times and tough luck, including a historic flood that may conjure up images for the reader of Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath. By the last page, the reader hopes these characters pull through.
For the most part, the book is told from the point of view of a young woman who suffers from epilepsy, and the collection is broken into three sections. The first is the most haunting, as several of the poems focus on the 1977 flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania that ravaged houses and swept away the young and old. In the poem “What Was Left at the Creekside House,” Umbach offers chilling imagery of a gutted house:
A single kitchen wall standing
A single ceramic pot
A knife that spread the peanut butter
her boys had eaten before bed.
On the counter, a roll of paper towels,
Umbach also employs local history in the poem with a note that states a sole family survivor of the flood tried to save her 7-year old son by grabbing the cloth of his sleeper. However, he was torn from her and perished, as well as her 8-year old son and husband . The note adds much context to the short, image-stacked lines of the poem.
In another poem, “Becky’s Ride,” dedicated to Becky Lichtenfel of the 1977 Johnstown Flood, Umbach captures the brute force and sheer power nature sometimes displays. In the poem, the sky “pulses, shooting itself full of light,” and cars “lift up erect and form a tower.” Anchored to the apocalyptic imagery is Becky’s story. She was swept away in the flood, and the young speaker confesses to searching Becky’s face for years at the bus stop, for traces of “thrashing against rock, the rushing waves that flowed through her hair.” By the end of the expansive narrative poem, Umbach does a fine job making the reader really care about Becky and her plight, her will to surface from the cold, muddy waters and somehow survive.
The second section of the book shifts to poems about the speaker’s struggle with epilepsy. Some of the poems are just as mesmerizing as the flood poems, especially “Climbing the Tower,” which describes the speaker’s countless trips to a Pittsburgh hospital when she was a teen. The speaker recounts seeing “Stick figures from Children’s Hospital” that were wheeled in and “bald and shushed by nurses.” The poem also captures the frustration of the speaker’s parents, who just want to understand what is wrong with their daughter. The father hopes the doctor will offer a diagnosis on paper, “something he could explain at the lunch table/of mill men drinking thermoses of coffee and milk.” The mother wanted “reasons, clipped out exotic mail-order/cures from backs of magazines.” What the speaker wants, however, is just to be normal, to be like the college girls she sees from out of a window, “perfect in their careless bodies.” Anyone who had a difficult adolescence and didn’t fit in could certainly relate to the last few lines of the poems.
The book is punctuated with a final section that offers more character-driven poems that find the speaker returning home after years away. What the final section makes clear is the empathy the speaker has for blue-collar workers, and how they remind her of her father, a pattern maker. In the poem “Service Center Repair,” the speaker takes her car in to get fixed and listens to the story of a mechanic working on “getting’ outta here” and saving extra money to make that happen. Here, the speaker draws a connection to her father and the mechanic.
I let out a sigh; he doesn’t know how drawn I am
to the neck of his blue collar, just like my Dad’s
-everything I wanted to trade—stretching
out on the passenger side of the car.
I want to tell him not to work so hard,
that money could make things complicated—
that his wife could find the postman
becoming more attractive with his regular hours
and the careful way he raps on the door
when the baby’s sleeping.
The poem is similar to a lot of the other poems in the collection because it again offers a story of a man working hard to survive and to carve out a better life for himself and his family.
The Pattern Maker’s Daughter is a fine celebration of the working-class that have populated Johnstown, Pennsylvania . Umbach’s expansive, character-driven poems are laced with images that show the beauty and value in hard work and survival.
Brian Fanelli’s poems have appeared in Harpur Palate, The Portland Review, San Pedro River Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, and other journals. He is the author of the chapbook Front Man, and his first full-length collection will be published in 2013 by Unbound Content. Find him online at www.brianfanelli.com.