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Edgar Kunz’s “Tap Out” and “Fixer”

“Edgar Kunz, the author of Tap Out and Fixer, does not refer to himself specifically as blue collar, proletarian, or working class. Well-meaning others, such as mentor Edward Hirsch, do so, referring to Tap Out as ‘gutsy, tough-minded, working-class poems of memory and initiation.'”

Reviewing poetry is a delicate matter. It is crucial to separate the strands of author biography and the press’s angle of marketing from the poetry itself, as the latter sometimes get confused with an assessment of a book’s poetics as such. While there is a case to be made for a surge in “new Armenian American poetry” or “a breakout first collection by an Appalachian writer,” such categories, while flavorful in announcing a possible theme or emphasis, ultimately have limited relevance to a cooler assessment of a volume’s quality as poetry. Even less so in the case of a long-oversold category such as “working-class poetry,” which has successfully endured as a diffuse, quasi-economic badge of honor and “marginalized” meaningfulness. This latter is a rare sight indeed, given the economic state of the United States, in which increasing numbers of Americans, approaching a majority, can no longer afford rent or mortgage payments. Therefore, given its majority status, might one more accurately simply say “poet,” no adjective required?  

To gain immediate insight into this longstanding phenomenon, one need only look into a special issue of the venerable World Literature Today, “16 American Working-Class Poets,” with titles such as “Redemption at Ray’s Grocery Store,” “The Bra Factory,” and “Why I Don’t Work Construction.” The first two authors are university professors, and like the third, also do not work construction. Are they then faux proletarians? Or simply former ones? Thus, working-class becomes a term of nostalgia, or merely a highly relative term as one enters middle class life, more a barroom boast, than the unique daily reality of a protected poetic class. The topoi of struggle and overcoming the hard-knocks life become more a brand than a current reality. And hyper capitalist America, based on its misleading and selective myth of the hard-won prosperity of the immigrant, loves this brand. It makes us good to see the little guy represent. Yet it is legitimate to ask whether this is a good-faith proposition, and whether the romanticism with which it is imbued is leading to poetry of sufficient finesse and subtlety, or whether a plainspoken, down-to-earth vocabulary, often overpraised for its “spare” qualities, is doing modern poetry a disservice, in its tenuous claim to relatability and speaking intelligently to the hypothetical masses. Is one destined to be swept into the devil’s bargain of entering a Raymond Carver gestalt, in which the representation of everyday people, in the closest approximation of what they talk about when they talk about whatever they talk about, supplants all other considerations of style and genre? It is hard to read such writing innocently when it is culturally exalted to a categorical imperative.

This issue becomes even more complicated when it dovetails, as it sometimes does, with the Charles Bukowski School of Anti-Poetics, which has done much to encourage limited literacy and a wholesale lack of caring about formal elements, e.g., poetics, seeing the practice rather as a spontaneous outburst, the rawer the better, embellished by adherence and professed allegiance to the metaphysics of the gutter.  

But clean or dirty, these two streams of the working man’s blues share a predilection for telling it like it supposedly is, and at best, often try to rescue that predilection by attaching it to “luminous” metaphors that give a faint aftertaste of Romantic lyricism.

Edgar Kunz, the author of Tap Out and Fixer, does not refer to himself specifically as blue collar, proletarian, or working class. Well-meaning others, such as mentor Edward Hirsch, do so, referring to Tap Out as, “gutsy, tough-minded, working-class poems of memory and initiation.” Why working-class? Is that a special, corporate sensibility? Do only the relatively disenfranchised possess memory and undergo initiation? Does it have a special quality, like that of a seer or a shaman, more ennobled? Like tens of millions, I grew up working class, and I cannot tell that it provided any particular illumination to me or those around me. The perpetuation of the myth of the ennobled striver purified by base labor is destructive for art, sentimentalizing pain, relegating tough-mindedness to one class of humans.

It is fairer to state, simply, that Kunz, as an individual poet, offers a loving, tortured portrait of his childhood and his reckless and self-destructive father, and others, in an atmosphere of impending violence.

It turns out Mike is removing pencil lead from the speaker’s neck. We do not know who stabbed hm or what the context was, and it is better that way. The emphasis is on the rough healing of one boy by another. Move along, there is nothing to see here. This particular poem is not trauma porn, which is sadly in vogue, mostly in memoirs, though it has invaded poetry. The weaker aspect of this book is the overworking of the father’s substance abuse, which becomes a governing trope of this collection.

“When you showed up drunk as hell, humming 

tunelessly to yourself, and slumped against

the auditorium’s faux-wood paneling—

…fished out a cigarette, brought it to your lips”

These are the moments when form turns to mush, the long single stanza of the poem essentially shapeless, to the point where it does not matter whether the poem has thirty lines or ten. There is no sharpness, as in the pliers poem. Rather, we get hackneyed rhetoric: “You shouldn’t have been there.” “You had come regardless. You were there./And I was there. And when I walked the stage/you hollered my name with a kind/of wild conviction.” There is no discipline or particular logic to the lines and their breaks, and the verbal tic “kind of” only creates confusion, essentially emotional filler rather than actual ambiguity. Here, unfortunately, the page begs for us to feel the pathos, rather than creating it. Poetry is a special mode and has its requirements. It does not simply give one the effect he wants because he says the words about the thing that happened. It should not resemble a passage from a Raymond Carver story.

The poem “Blue” offers a radical contrast, in its 22 marshaled couplets, comprising only two sentences, the second sentence beginning slightly off-kilter at couplet 12, offer a satisfying imbalance (as in a Petrarchan sonnet) that reflects the theme of a young man who falls through a dining room skylight and hurdles to earth like Milton’s Lucifer.

“Because Craig Mathis fell two stories

through the skylight over the dining room


and lay face-up on the wood floor me

and the other waitstaff waxed on Sundays,


and because the sprinkler pipes tore out

of the ceiling when he fell, tripping


the fire alarm and spraying salt water

over the place settings and chairs, the siren”

And so on. Yes, this poem, like most of Kunz’s, is story-like—he is, in the end, a storyteller. Yet here he lets the couplets do the work of the descent, cagily stringing out a hypotactic sentence (“Because Craig Mathis fell”) in which the delayed main clause grammatically creates drama, as each orderly couplet offers a symmetry that is a contrast to the disorder of the unfolding scene. Rather than leading with theme, he lets theme emerge. The dry-eyed, somewhat matter of fact recounting of this horrible injury becomes rather a subject of wonderment amid the marvelous plenitude of youth. Calling this poem of great finesse and intuitive micro-poetic choices gutsy would demean the art and intelligence it took to produce it. It is written with the empathic creative mind, not the guts. It sets the standard for the collection.  

This same restraint governs “My Father, at 23, on the Highway Side of an Overpass Fence.” The mood could have been unbearably grim, given the father’s self-destructive streak. But Kunz, like Wordsworth in The Prelude, uses the grief of separation, recollected in relative tranquility, to provide a welcome sense of measure.

“And the cops pull up

and cuff him and scrawl

their badge numbers on the forms—


if he was ever up 

on that overpass, it wasn’t

a bad trip that put him there.


I get it. In California, in the thin

middle of my twenties, I’m up

most nights on Bernal Hill,


walking the radio tower fence-line,

measuring the distances.

The three thousand miles


between San Francisco

and the town where the shadows

of my brothers grow tall.”

The understatement of “I get it” is devastating among these tercets that form their own fence-line for us to walk. The speaker does not convey any sense that his experience is unique, only singular in its vivid particulars. All extended and most nuclear families suffer mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction, erratic behavior, divorce and separation, and sons or daughters left stranded, physically or emotionally. The speaker merely offers the particulars of his own case. He is not representing a social class, not speaking as the self-appointed representative of the poor. He is rather representing universal aspects of human experience. If you identify, good, you probably will, and if you cannot, turn the page.

Kunz’s Fixer, his second book, cannot rightly be called a sophomore slump, but its effects are varied. At its softest, as in the long title poem “Fixer,” the couplets seem relatively aimless at times, half thought out.

“We should have hired someone,

I say. Me and Noah are dragging


your mattress out. Nah, he says,

we got it. We force it


through the doorway

and down the carpeted stairs.


We should have spared ourselves

the bucket of vomit,


the empty plastic vodka jugs,

the black rubber glover the cops


left balled up on the dresser.”

Perhaps it is sacrilegious to indict a poem about the speaker/poet’s father overdosing. Yet one has already witnessed multiple scenes of misery in both books, and without the special power of poetry to move us once again, compassion fatigue sets in. Also, by now one has seen what Kunz can do with couplets as storytelling at its best, and this title poem, given its relative importance, seems lesser in relative terms. Its casual guy chatter has begun to feel like a stylistic tic, the bucket of vomit ostentatious rather than shocking, likewise the tedious mention of black rubber gloves. If the somewhat arbitrary line breaks are removed, we find ourselves in a minimalist short story or novel of the kind popularized in the 1990s, and the effect is less than zero. There is, once again, an underlying pleading beneath the casual veneer that deters close identification. And that is exactly what causes a theme to become a trope. A work of art (including memoir and autofiction, in my view) must tread carefully, never enjoining its reader tacitly or explicitly to take pity on the presented scene, neither on its subject nor its speaker. The poem, rather, is an enactment of what is. That is the special magic of Kunz’s best work that gave Tap Out its fast start in public opinion.

More summoning is a poem in Fixer with a lighter touch, in which Kunz, who has a special affinity for tercets, once again navigates them nimbly, as the speaker of “New Year” observes from his new apartment his neighbors.

“I should be grateful,


I guess, for the bright

morning, the smoke that makes

my breathing visible. And they


seem happy. My neighbors.

Good for them. High

on their ladders, backlit by fog.


A growing pile of scrap

in the slush below. They cut

wildly, clanging against the rungs,


It’s thrilling to watch.

Sawdust gathers in the creases

of their jackets. Where they pry 


the rotten timber away,

the brick is a brighter 

shade of red beneath.”

As in the skylight poem from the previous book, these tercets create literal verticality, a sense of space critical to the poem’s aims. The enjambment is skillful, including the leaps between stanzas. Nothing is forced; Kunz simply displays a sure sense of rhythm. All poetry, including free verse, has meter, whether or not it is acknowledged or used to purpose. Here the phrasing is impeccable. Further, phrases such as “I guess,” and “good for them,” have outsized effect, as well as does the simple, well-timed declaration “It’s thrilling to watch.” The speaker exists in a sedate moment of happiness and fellow human feeling. The peeling of the rotten timber and the brighter brick beneath, while obviously symbolic, feel real. Casual speech is used in this poem, not to establish any linguistic cred regarding social class or to indulge in minimalism. In these verses’ highly worked context, the language is all poetic. “New Year” shines a light forward to a possibly more expansive future.

One wishes for Kunz a third book that shores up the strengths of these first two books, eschews their less memorable moments, and takes him not necessarily deeper into the same territory, now well explored, but into new and broader terrain.

Johnny Payne is the arts editor at Merion West. He is a poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist. He has worked extensively in Latin American Studies, especially literature under dictatorship and Quechua oral tradition. He directs the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles and earned his doctorate from Stanford University.

Johnny Payne is the arts editor at Merion West. Johnny is a poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist. He has worked extensively in Latin American Studies, especially literature under dictatorship and Quechua oral tradition. He directs the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles. He earned his doctorate from Stanford University. Contact Johnny at

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