Adolescence as Abattoir: The Slaughterhouse Poems

10/23/2013 4:00 AM |

The Slaughterhouse Poems
By Dave Newman
White Gorilla Press

“This all happened in 1988 and I remember it/ more vividly than any Christmas or birthday/ more vividly than any funeral or school dance.” From the start, The Slaughterhouse Poems identifies itself as set in the past, but this matters less for narrative reasons than emotional ones. Like The Glass Menagerie or The Things They Carried, this is a memory play, an expression of how things felt rather than how they were.

Poetry is the ideal mode of expression for this kind of work. Unlike other coming of age books—a description that doesn’t entirely fit here—it understands that we process our adolescences not as stories but as series of defining images and epiphanies. To describe them in prose is to limit their emotional truth. Dave Newman’s collection covers a period during which its unnamed narrator lurked in angst, hunted for girls who too rarely showed up and “played the teenager/ in the horroriest horror flick ever” on the brutal killing floor of a slaughterhouse, a location that functions as metaphor for his entire existential crisis.

Things happen in flashes. A high school wrestler binges on fast food and purges to make weight. A party to raise money for an abortion—“sounded like a great idea/ as far as terrible ideas go”—becomes legend without the party (or the abortion) ever actually happening. An elderly man attempts to rescue an employee who has become a stripper and doesn’t want to be saved. And all the while chainsaws bore through flesh and rivers of blood and fat are hosed away.

Newman is a gifted writer, incisive and true. He sees the pain that the abattoir represents, but also the humorous absurdity, as when pigs are held up as a route to world peace, as so many cultures consider them dirty. The Slaughterhouse Poems is short but it’s not small. Anything that could have been added would have nothing more than gristle and fat.