–for Larry Hauguel
DISMANTLE HOIST TALK
When Luis cut
the hose, the fluid
spilled out like a severed
vein, sudden and slapping
the floor, draining away
like the last of the sky’s
warmth. Under the engine
cover, we found traces
of the life that was before:
two rings of play-keys, a CD
of Christmas songs, five
dollar scratch-offs, bits
of cracked glass sparkling
in the light as if something
more had been left behind
than just these pieces thrown
from the windshield in
the accident. It can be grim
work, picking out pieces browned
from blood, dried like any fruit
left out on the cutting board
for too long. And when
the last light is seen in our
eyes, what will remain? We
talk again of his son, one week
deported, absentmindedly checking
these discarded tickets, sharing
some impossible thread
of hope with some lost
stranger. What remains
of us when our own vehicles
arrive in some salvage yard
will be picked through without
care, without consequence.
Luis spreads floor-dry, soaking
up the leaking fluid. I cover my
mouth against the dust, not ready
to test these infinitesimals.
THE DISTANCE BETWEEN US
Today there was no Carlos in Dismantle Bay #2.
We learned from Luis, his tío, that the father
of Carlos had died in Mexico.
And all I can think about is how at the party
at the house of Luis, Carlos was the first to sit
with me after filling my plate with tacos and beans
and how I was better off than before, sharing
a meal with Carlos. I asked Luis sometime later
how he had gone back—only then I learned that
he did not leave, was still here, the route back
impossible, the cost to smuggle a man back
thousands of dollars, lights in the dark and fear.
And I think of my own father, how if the course
of life took us so far apart, took me to a new
country for the hope of a better life, what I might
write about. Carlos is still here. There was no plane
that bore him to Mexico, no car laden with belongings
rolling across state lines towards his only father.
What can I say, but that I am better for having known
Carlos, for sharing that meal with him at the house
of Luis, my infant son in the stroller looking at
the both of us while our hands waved away flies
and cradled tacos, Carlos smiling and tender voice
cooing in his accented English, hi baby, hi baby,
the memory of this springing from the depths
of me like something sacred.
We climbed through the gap in the wall of crushed vehicles, the rust
off bent metal reminders of what lays ahead for every newly minted
sedan and our own bodies, the wilds
displaying the final resting places of all that yearns to be dust. My uncle
lumbered on through
the spent bodies, smoking like the shotgun shells in the leaflitter once did.
at the remnants of a Studebaker, the chassis burned a fragile red-brown
that crumbled at the touch
of my one finger, like the sufferer finally allowed to die. A release.
There was not much
to say, but he was trying. Even though this was before the big fight
he was trying
to make sense of it. Like me. And what did I want then but to fall
in love? I did not know how to
place my body in the world. I did not know where to stand. The wind
felled leaves like
a first frost and we examined other old bones for clues of the coming
it was impossible to gather the tension into anything but a reason
to keep moving, the house visible
then through the trees. And I was made to feel trespasser here, too.
The wilds owned
as everything was. There was no longer any value here, the rust deep.
Nothing to be
rebuilt. We could not know then that years later his mother would
be brought home to die. That I would
arrive and shake her awake and through the morphine Goodbye, Austin.
Or that we would all stay
the night and he and I would share a room. It was not nothing, not being
along as we slept
dreamless. We could not know that I would embrace him first
after the rush back through traffic or that
we would fight weeks later over secondhand cigarette smoke after
years of my enduring it.
We could not know that it would all seem like this forgotten grotto,
what could not
be salvaged like a darkness that would always be there. We stepped
back through the open gap, back into
the yard. I remember how the wilds seemed more like myself than the acres
of parted vehicles
or the uncle for whom this was everything. I am glad that we did not stay
of Studebakers, that we stepped through the gap and passed through
the wall between properties, between
a lingering patch of wood and a salvage yard, between the mortal hearts
of those surviving it.
A red-tailed hawk has nested in a front end, the cut
noses of vehicles on pallets and racking stacked
three levels high to divide properties, headlamps
like eyes on a medieval display of heads, chromed
grills teeth locked in rigor mortis. Tall weeds
underneath turn brown and orange as they drink
poison, earning us three points from the inspection
company for our controlled vegetation. The hawk
glides away to distant trees and the garter snake
relaxes. A groundhog thunks his head in panic, diving
below spare racking that hasn’t moved in years, burnt
with rust. Cabbage butterflies like white nymphs
bounce on every lift of air. Water collects in open
trunks, mosquito larvae thrashing in contemplative
stupors at their coming days of glory. The cats
lurking like little panthers between the bones of cars
have three mangy kittens. Black-winged locusts flee
into the grasses where mantises hunt with otherworldly
precision. Trees press against the high wall of crushed
cars, vines reaching over and through like the desperate
hands of beggars. José lifts a Mazda to unbolt the front
bumper, rabbits hiding underneath darting. The ghost
of the yard dog Dexter runs after, exuberant as he was
in life, stub of tail furious in its display of joy. José smiles
as he remembers the dog—but also the memory of one
spring morning, José came into the office a sputtering
mess, Dexter crushed under one giant wheel of the loader,
blood soaking in the dirt fine enough to gather on hot
summer winds like a Saharan dust storm, stinging
to tears those brave enough to look directly at it.
When you spend so much time around an automotive recycling facility, you notice how very much the automobile is like the body—a conglomerate of job-specific parts intricately assembled to produce a mobile and incredible machine. Tubes, intake, and hoses like veins. Outer metal panels like skin. The engine, a heart, transmission, a pair of lungs. The engine computer, a brain. And it is intrinsically fallible, eroding as anything does through time. Drive any vehicle long enough and something will inevitably fail. The daily witness of vehicles smashed beyond repair, their good parts picked out to be resold, the fluids drained and recycled, their stripped chassis crushed and stacked for steel scrappers—it reminds one all too well of the fate of the body. This process of automotive recycling becomes intimate and familiar. The poems in this selection occupy this space of introspection, which is directly informed by this outward observation. This daily immersion allows a distillation of the “place” in question into these fundamental elements, this parsing out of what a poet might notice about a salvage yard. I did not intend to write “salvage yard poems,” but I am pleased with their seemingly organic appearance.
The automotive recycling facility in question is my family’s business, founded in 1981 by my Opa. He and his brothers and sisters all emigrated to the United States from Holland in the years after the Second World War, settling in South Bend, Indiana and starting many businesses which thrive to this day. Yet while this element of place is central, as it grounds the poems in an interesting way in space and time, it is the persons who inhabit the space which really advance the poems. There are deep family roots, which complicates things in all the ways you might expect—my bosses are my dad and my uncle (see “The Grotto”). And beyond this, the Yard (as it is referred to in the family), employs a good deal of Mexican immigrants. Through the years, I have come to know their families. I’ve attended birthday parties and weddings. Listened to sons tell me how they are unable to visit their dying father or mother. Fathers have told me of their son’s deportation. When you witness such things, they inform your worldview. It becomes abundantly clear which political entities have never known immigrants intimately—their willful vilification of the vulnerable to their own goals of power-retention becomes unforgivably abhorrent.
And as with any business that has been in operation for nearly forty years, with much of the same staff, there are stories which have become a sort of mythos. As I wrote poems, I found these “legends” of the Yard to lend the most interesting topics for writing. There have been numerous yard dogs: in the past, it was common practice for salvage yards to have a yard dog or two for an added security measure. Break-ins or thefts in the night have not been wholly uncommon—the idea was that the knowledge of yard dogs on the premises would deter theft. The poem “Habitat” explores one such yard dog. Here is another story that has not yet made it into a poem: Opa would greet customers with one of the dogs at his side, its tail happily wagging and seemingly innocuous as Opa scratched its neck, and him saying in his thick Dutch accent, “He’s totally harmless.” Only then would he shift his hand from a deep scratch to a fistful of fur—a harmless grip that was their mutual signal for playtime—and on cue the dog would growl deeply. The customer would then jump in surprise. And out would come Opa’s signature sheepish grin. Other mythos and legends of the Yard are found in the yet unpublished collection from where these poems originate: the goose, the fires, ghosts in the warehouse, animal sightings between the rows of cars, break-ins, and peace lilies.
All this consideration of mythos is linked heavily with memory. It is an important trend in my work. While poems in “What Cannot Be Salvaged” do center partially around these salvage yard poems, the others spring from memory in more personal reflections. Our memory is fundamentally tied to our identities—and like our bodies it is so intrinsically fallible. We struggle to remember what we did the day prior. Our knowledge of our past experiences is merely an impression of that moment—tastes, smells, visions, the feeling of what it was like to be alive in that moment in time. And these precious moments are available only to our innermost selves—we cannot share memories with others in their purest forms (as we know them). And yet we cannot even completely trust our own recollections—what do our own biases blind us from, what does our Ego keep buried, what has been forgotten? And as the unending process of the dismantling of vehicles in the salvage yard reminds us, a final reckoning awaits the body and mind. What makes us, us, is ultimately another thing to be salvaged, to be recycled by the universe. I think what can make poetry so powerful is that it is an honest attempt to sublimate this intimate form of personal memory into a shareable form. It is suddenly recorded and placed outside of the mind. And when a reader gets it, they really get it. This gets right at the yearning that makes poetry so essential and fundamental to the poet—a desire and need to be heard and understood. It is a desire to transmute the beauty of a moment to another person. Poetry that can do this then becomes essential to the reader. It is like a lifeline thrown to the lost at sea, a tether, which pulls against the seemingly unquenchable loneliness of the human condition. The act of reading and writing poetry becomes a sort of antidote. This is the importance and power of all art in the world.
Austin Veldman is a poet, editor, and songwriter from South Bend, Indiana. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Atlanta Review, Rabid Oak, Bateau Literary Magazine, Plainsongs, and Great Lakes Review. He is managing editor of 42 Miles Press and is the founding editor and editor-in-chief of Twyckenham Notes, an online literary magazine that was the recipient of a 2020 Pushcart, a finalist for a Firecracker Award for Best Debut Magazine, and is home to the Joe Bolton Poetry Award. He holds an MA in English from Indiana University South Bend, where he has taught contemporary poetry. He works in management at an automotive recycling facility and lives in Northern Indiana with his wife and two sons.