Original poem reprinted online here: "Steel" by Kwame Dawes
Originally read: July 26, 2013
More information about the Poet: Kwame Dawes
The prophetic, Whitman-esque, voice appears in this poem, but in a more grim context. But the beginning of the poem feels expansive when discussing items and place.
The initial image is of, "A truckload of fresh watermelons," which is innocuous enough and then the movement comes in, "cutting through so many states: Arkansas, West Virginia, Maryland, into the smoke-heavy Pennsylvania cities;" the places listed are so specific as though the poem addresses them, but note the semi-colon at the end of the expanse.
"from red dirt like a land soaked / in blood to the dark loam of this new / land" high metaphor here. In these lands it's the interpretation rather of the place, but note the simile used for comparison noting what it looks like instead of is. And it is in the comparison that the speaker pinpoints a specific location, "Pittburgh's / dark uneven skyline" then goes further into the perspective.
we have found shelter
while the crippled leader
waits to promote healing
for a nation starving
the introduction of the appears here and they are suffering. Why is the we not introduced in the beginning? I think the switch between the idyllic to the grim shows the difference between broad and specific strokes. Here the specific is the we. The broad is the "crippled lead /waits to promote healing." What type of healing? What is needed? Versus, "a nation starving / on itself." Where the specific places mentioned in the beginning come into play here -- and they, just like the "we" are starving on itself.
The poem then goes more specific onto the people Two men are hungry and "laugh bitter / laughs," as they work. Then the poem goes towards a Whitman-esque anaphora of, "Hear the engine clunking, hear the steel of a new century / creaking." And with these lines there is a sense of cynicism. Yes, the actions are specific, but note the suffering in order to create a "new century" which doesn't thrive, but "creaks." The sonic device is discordant in the poem marking the cynicism.
Then the poem goes back to the "blood" idea but this time, "There is blood / in the sky -- at dawn, the city / takes them in like women." Yes, the image is a bit cliche, but that guttural palpable sense is further instigated here. Furthermore, the simile sort of degrades the concept of women, but in doing so degrades the citizen of the nation. It's a touchy line.
Then from a physical struggle perspective comes the mental, "Inside them all memory / becomes the fiction of survival." And the link of survival comes a zombie reference:
here the dead have hands
that can caress and heal,
hands that can push a living
body into a grave, hold it there,
and the living get to sing.
Initially, the dead and living reference felt comical (just because my frame of mind), but I understand the more serious usage here. In order for the living to express anything other than suffering, the dead, or the memory of the dead have to act -- sometimes like a salve, or sometimes like a burden -- whichever the case, the memory of the dead has to be memorable, has to be something worth singing about.
"This is a nation of young men, / dark with the legacies / of brokeness," These lines are the focus of "men" and impact (or little impact) on the creation of a nation. Note here that the focus is on young men in which are broken and here, "men who know / that life is short, that the world / bring blood" the focus is of men -- broken doesn't mean dead, rather some "innocent" things have to be let go -- the idea of legacy in a positive light and learning, "that peace / is a night of quiet repose / while the dogs howl in the woods" silence for men, only "dogs" howl. "men who know the comfort / of steel, cold as mist at dawn / pure burnished steel." Steel used in the noun form and the adjective form. The noun form is what the men, who are suffering, work for and nothing else, there's no emotional attachment there.
But then the word comfort comes in, and I think it applies to the adjective steel -- to be in a state of hardened self and working towards something. It's not the joy of work, it's the action of work being like a pin to show troubles. The last line has remnants of cynicism, but mostly, for me, there's more sincerity than cynicism.