reviewed on June 5, 2023
Under-appreciated amid the explosion in identity-based writing over the past twenty years has been a movement of working-class poets committed to articulating the dignities and depredations of manual labor, and to documenting—to comparatively little acclaim, it must be said—the class and cultural anxieties associated with it.
Influenced by the fiction of Raymond Carver and the poetry of Philip Levine, the “gas-station realism” movement includes not only Edgar Kunz, one of its foremost practitioners, but poets like Anders and Kai Carlson-Wee, Steven Kleinman, Emily Van Kley, and Devon Walker-Figueroa, all of whom bring keen and often radiant attention to that aspect of contemporary experience which Americans most love to ignore: economics. Like Carver, these writers work in the clipped syntax and demotic language of the American proletariat. Like Levine, their work centers on everyday narratives, on portraits of workers engaged in the banal habits of their labor, a subject too often elided in American poetry of the contemporary era and long before.
Kunz’s slender sophomore collection, Fixer, approaches labor as paradox: it is both a source of identity and meaning for those who engage in it, and, under American capitalism, the most material form of an exploitative and indeed farcical system of civilization—of all the modes of existence the species might have worked out for itself, Kunz suggests, capitalist relations remain the most ridiculous. Fixer speaks to those relations by moving among the realism of Carver and Levine, the magical realism of Kafka, and, related to it, the “weird” or “slipstream” realism of contemporary fiction writers like Karen Russell; through farce, that is, Fixer takes on a civilization of hypertrophied capital, ecological ruin, and of social and psychological disrepair of all kinds.
Appropriately, the poem that most exemplifies Kunz’s affinities with “gas-station realism” takes place at a gas station, centering on a character who seems to star in a television commercial or photo shoot:
In a button-up and jeans I pretend
to pump unleaded into a rented Civic.
In a peacoat and slacks I pretend
to pump premium into a rented Benz.
Inside, I stock the already stocked
shelves: SunChips and Snickers,
jumbo packs of bottled water, Powerade,
Coke. I wear a XXL polo with the excess
safety-pinned behind me […]
Brilliantly rendered, “Model” marshals the detail of its setting toward potent socioeconomic critique, as Kunz’s unnamed model comes to suggest American capital as a Sisyphean cycle of exploitation, a pyramid scheme. “When this is over,” Kunz relates, “I will be paid // in gas station gift cards I’ll use to fill up / the car I borrowed to get here.”
As in “Model,” much of Fixer explores the lives of characters—including the speaker and his father—who suffer the deleterious consequences of unfulfilling labor, consequences which, in this country, get shunted down to the working classes. The collection’s title sequence, for instance, follows the speaker as he cleans out his alcoholic father’s apartment after the latter’s death, a man who “could fix // anything,” Kunz writes, yet who, unable to fix himself, tested at the autopsy “[p]ositive for duloxetine anti- / depressant in the blood. Positive // for nicotine. For ethanol.” “I held him together / as long as I could,” the speaker’s mother says. “He stopped working, / stopped coming upstairs.”
That metaphor—of “fixing” as both a mechanical and social-psychological form of reparation—runs throughout Fixer. At moments, it hits a little too tidily, as when Kunz writes of a housing renovation that “[w]here they pry // the rotten timber away, / the brick is a brighter / shade of red beneath.” It is, I think, an image a fourth-year undergrad turns in after learning the term “conceit.” A great deal of the collection, though, works that metaphor to profound effect, including in its title sequence. “I met a woman once,” Kunz writes there, “who worked on pianos.
Said it was a hard job.
The tools, the leverage.
The required ear. I love it,
she said, but it’s brutal.
The second I step away
it’s already falling out of tune.
If Horace conceived the poet’s work as a process of “put[ting] the badly turned lines back on the anvil”—as a kind of literary fixing, in other words—Kunz demonstrates here and throughout Fixer that he is a brilliant Horatian. The collection is a remarkable entry, it seems to me, in the contemporary “gas-station realism” movement, but it also stands on its own as a forceful meditation on labor and on the laboring that life is.