A Poetry of Compassion
by Lucille Lang Day
ONE OF THE THINGS I like best about At Work on the Garments of Refuge, by Daniel Marlin and Ralph Dranow, is the accessibility of the poems. There is nothing here of the aesthetic some contemporary poets have adopted that calls for making poems so difficult that you need to parse them like Schrödinger's equation. I don't personally object to having to do that sometimes with poems. I once took a course in quantum mechanics and have even done it with the equation itself.
Still, it is a sheer pleasure to read poems you can understand on first reading. You might want to read some of Marlin's and Dranow's poems a second time, though, just because you enjoy the stories so much. Story is central to these poems: there's the story of the homeless woman sleeping by the railroad tracks, the story of Peruvian immigrant Alfredo trying to make it in the U.S., the story of the friendly postal clerk, the story of the life and death of Sophie the cat, and oh so many others!
These stories are bound together by compassion, and Marlin and Dranow are not alienated or depressed in telling them. There are moments of anger, but they tend to pass quickly, resolving in empathy for the vexing individuals who trouble our lives. Marlin's "In the Pocket," the story of the homeless woman by the railroad tracks, concludes with the speaker placing money under "An old black watch cap near the sleeper's head" and praying that "it will be / there when the sleeper wakes." In "Shopping During the Pandemic," Dranow fumes, "Don't you know we're supposed to stay / Six feet apart?" when a "lanky young guy" steers his grocery cart too close, but at the check-out counter, the checker snaps at Dranow, "Move back!" and he realizes that he has made the same error.
Despite giving the overall impression that Marlin and Dranow feel at home in the world, the poems do not shy away from such topics as atrocity, war, and environmental degradation. In "Okinawa," Marlin visits a peace museum and observes, "There's an orderly cemetery now, / each tomb imprinted with a different / nation's flag." In a dream poem called "Pitching to Hitler," Dranow is a scrawny kid on a baseball team trying to prevent Hitler from getting a home run. In "Trees," Dranow laments the decimation of old growth forests and concludes, "I nominate trees for the Nobel Peace Prize."
The book is structured in two parts, the first half being poems by Marlin, the second half poems by Dranow. Marlin and Dranow met in the fall of 1978 at the Oakland Main Post Office, where they were both working as temporary mail handlers, and they developed a close friendship that lasted until Marlin's death in 2017. The second section of At Work on the Garments of Refuge begins with six poems that are homages to Marlin. These include three ekphrastic poems inspired by Marlin's paintings (two of these paintings and many other paintings and drawings by Marlin appear in the book), a dream about Marlin, a poem about Marlin's final illness, and a poem about Marlin's hitchhiking to Palo Alto as a young man to drop in on his literary hero, Kenneth Patchen.
The poems in At Work on the Garments of Refuge are not all perfect. There are a few extra lines and words, but this does not detract from the overall quality of the book. Marlin's and Dranow's poems remind me of the clarity, conscience, and insight in the work of Harvey Shapiro and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, two other poets who are mostly accessible. Much has been said about the value of opacity and ambiguity in poetry, and these attributes do indeed add interest for people who want to wrestle with a poem or enable different readers to endow it with different meanings. Sometimes, though, as in Marlin's and Dranow's work, transparency is a virtue, like a Western window that lets a warm and beautiful light shine through.
Lucille Lang Day has published seven full-length poetry collections and four chapbooks. Her most recent collection is Birds of San Pancho and Other Poems of Place. She has co-edited two anthologies, Red Indian Road West: Native American Poetry from California and Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California, and is the author of two children's books. She also published a memoir, Married at Fourteen: A True Story, winner of a PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award and a finalist for the Northern California Book Award in Creative Nonfiction.