Robert Fillman on Scraping Away by Fred Shaw, CavanKerry Press, 2020.
In the front matter of Fred Shaw’s debut collection Scraping Away, the poet tells us, “This book is dedicated to those who know what it takes to make a shift go smooth,” and this dedication could not be more thoughtful—or fitting. Here, and throughout, Shaw says a word for the service industry, for the overworked essential workers struggling to make ends meet, for an entire class of people who reside somewhere between precarity and self-worth—and whose voice is often lost in mainstream political discourse.
The people in Scraping Away are a diverse crowd. It is a bustling landscape of servers and busboys, dishwashers and hostesses, cooks and customers. Whether it is the masterful chef José at the Yum-Yum Café,
an illegal cooking this Szechuan dish
for sweatshirted undergrads who slurp
their noodles through chopsticks while he works
over blue-flamed burners in a steamy kitchen
or the poet’s own mother, who “wants to play Scrabble / but instead” talks to her son about “[their] fingers / how they’ve split into open-flowered nerves / stinging [their] bodies to the bulk / of a weary self at the end of the day,” Shaw urges us toward empathy through proximity. He gives us a glimpse of a grueling restaurant industry, placing us in the hot kitchen, letting us hear the clatter of dishes and clanking of silverware, asking us, time and time again, to experience what it feels like to “make a shift go smooth” when the contours of your life are anything but.
In many ways, despite the economic hardship and the physical demands of labor, the guests and coworkers in Scraping Away are a welcomed respite, a kind of surrogate family, whose camaraderie and understanding give hope to the poet—and the reader. They bum smokes. They carpool to work. They share leftovers from a shattered plate of seafood that crashed to the floor. Still, Shaw is brave enough to take us into his own family, to his personal losses and grief, not least of all, the death of his father, whom he unflinchingly mourns. In “Thirteen Steps,” we see this on full display, the poet’s refusal to shy away from the pain that surrounds him, the frailty of body and spirit:
For his last six years
my father geared each night
for the climb upstairs
by gulping swallows of air
into his shallow lungs.
The tether of oxygen
was necessary armor
against all thirteen steps,
that stretched to the edge
of his queen-size, now more
goal line than retreat.
Haunting memories like these are secreted from every syllable in Scraping Away. This is a courageous book of mourning, whose directness is matched equally by its humanity: every sight, sound, and smell bringing us into the realms of memory and experience. Amidst the “grilled meat and dried sweat,” “the gray spaces commerce forgot,” the “aqua vinyl booths,” and the “uncapped” bottles of Iron City Beer, Shaw reminds us that life is worth living, even when “the extra shifts leave [the poet] feeling shucked and exposed,” when, like his pickup stuck in the ice, “all [he] can do / is rock [his] body / and spin the wheels into a cry.”
Like the fellow workers he describes, Shaw is a daring and capable poet, precariously balancing the weight of his lines, as if the page were “the fiberglass oval on the level plain / of [his] palm,” his poems, the “gritty sweet meat.” Scraping Away is not just a collection for the working class, or even lovers of poetry. It is for anyone with a heartbeat.
Robert Fillman is the author of the chapbook November Weather Spell (Main Street Rag, 2019). His poetry has appeared in such journals as The Hollins Critic, Paterson Literary Review, Salamander, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Tar River Poetry. His literary criticism has appeared in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, The Explicator, and CLAJ: The College Language Association Journal. He currently teaches at Kutztown University.