“BALK!”: A fierce book of poems from the front lines of the class war

The most powerful poems take hold of our bodies…For example, a poem designed to evoke anger does much more than give us information about the triggering event; it shapes our energy into the very rhythms of anger. A series of words is chosen because it literally causes us to sputter and spit, stirring up memories and experiences from our personal past, reviving the emotion itself. –“How We Are Changed by the Rhythms of Poetry,” by Karin de Weille, published in The Writer’s Chronicle

Not long ago I read yet another article wondering why Americans don’t read poetry. The author raised all sorts of interesting points but the question never asked was: do most people recognize their lives in the poems they hear or read?

We live in an era when poetry isn’t supposed to raise its voice. A lot of poetry these days is maddeningly polite, even the political poetry — or at least the poets writing it say it is political poetry. Too often it lacks a discernable point of view and it’s hard to recognize exactly what it is. If there is political content, it travels incognito under a faked passport and wears a false beard. Not so the poems of BALK! by Virginia poet and long-time editor of Blue Collar Review magazine, Al Markowitz.

The world is on fire!

The soil is poisoned!

The seas are dying!

A tidal wave of brutality is building

to sweep us away! Our

flags are turned to nooses and our hands

wreak of complicity.

from If A Tree Falls In The Forest…

People in the U.S. struggle with poverty, with age and illness and lousy health care, with police repression, with trying to make ends meet working crappy jobs — sometimes two or three of them — while decent paying working class jobs have gone the way of the buffalo. In the meantime, towns and cities are left gutted and to rot, unemployment soars and despair is written large on a polluted landscape of drinking water made lethal with lead or so combustible from fracking it ignites with the flick of a lighter.

Many poets would shy away from confronting the mess the right wing has made of America but not Al Markowitz. He lived these poems. These are poems written, not just about the working class, but from the working class. These are poems about interviewing for a new job, about work related injury, about trying to make it on the margins, about long hours and poor health and the uncertainties of being unemployed.

The Fold assembly line a painful memory

of better times and now

the I.P. paper mill in Franklin closing

slamming like a door on

so many lives

”Layoffs” the dreaded headline materializing like a

hellish apparition as industrial areas turn to ghost towns

shopping centers empty

dark windows

like missing teeth and

jobs harder to find than

Saddam’s fabled weapons

Change even scarcer and

Hope deflating like a bad tire

from Dissolution

BALK! is a fierce book written from the front lines of the class war. It is angry and hopeful and defiant by turns. The ghosts of the Wobblies walk through these poems. Every worker who ever had to eat shit just to keep a job they desperately needed, or finally had enough and told a boss to go fuck themselves and walked out the door can relate to these poems.

What will it take to get our


States bankrupted and begging

like the out of work and discarded,

the old and ill tossed

to the angry streets

the moneyed smug feeding

like flies crazed on carrion

from Tell Me

These poems tell stories, incidents, and to some extent are anecdotal, so in one sense they are a kind of “personal poem”–the bane of some post-1990 literary critics who see any insertion of the personal into a poem as a betrayal of Marxist principles.

When does it get personal,

the mass destructiveness

of poverty,

of fear?

from Tell Me

 The poems of BALK! are a broken diary of a worker’s journey through suffering to solidarity. BALK! could be looked on as a kind of long poem–built up out of many separate narratives–about a worker’s life, fears, hopes and sometimes despair. In its own way, this is a working class Odyssey. Essentially, Markowitz has mythologized himself and so becomes transformed into Every Worker, and he has done it in such a way that he simultaneously becomes more human, more vulnerable.

The chill nervousness

of the scrutinized,

the sick tightness in the knotted gut

when the manager says,

step into my office.

from P.I.S.S.

 BALK! is an act of testifying to one’s own personal history of exploitation and a way of saying No! to the grinding machinery of Empire. Al Markowitz is a man who knows about the soul-draining beat-down of long hours and poor pay and despite a hard history of personal struggle he still lifts his head up and dares to hope for a better world. I believe that if Al Markowitz lived in any number of countries besides the U.S. he would be considered a working-class hero.

I was truly glad for the opportunity to read this collection. BALK! is a book that should be not only widely shared, but used as a blueprint for the possibilities it offers poetry, political and otherwise.

Here is the poem, One More Time, in its entirety.

In the land of

broken machines

he struggles to produce

the collective voices

of the broken and

the stressed

one more time

beneath the crushing weight

of the juggernaut

A song too few will hear

A defiant cry that yet

may grow


BALK! by Al Markowitz

Partisan Press

P.O. Box 11417

Norfolk, Virginia 23251

$15.00, includes postage


Book launch and author reading with Al Markowitz

Sunday, October 8, 4-5:30 p.m.

The Muse Writers Center

2200 Colonial Ave, Ste 3,

Norfolk, Virginia 23517


Robert Edwards
Robert Edwards

Robert Edwards is the author of numerous chapbooks and four full length collections of poetry, the latest being The Big Job, Political Poems, 1978-2004, Red Dragonfly Press.