A Dark Ordinary has a combination of visually intriguing poems, reminiscent of e.e. cummings, and poignant prose poems that grasp your imagination. Using vivid imagery, unusual description, and vibrant language, Dyckman successfully paints a portrait of the sad, bleak, “dark ordinary” lives of child laborers in early 1900s America.
Easily overlooked, Susanne Dyckman’s A Dark Ordinary begins with a single word that stands alone on the page…a statement? a demand? a quiet plea?... Mercy.
That word, a small smudge of black on an otherwise blank page, is representative of much of the aesthetic of Dyckman’s book. The white space around her poetry makes the poetry itself stand out from the page, drawing the reader’s eyes to the text. This Spartan formatting makes the occasional use of photographs in the book all the more startling and impactful.
Lewis Hine, the famous American photographer, is most known for his work documenting child laborers in the early 20th century. These pictures, on which many of Dyckman’s poems are based, can be strangely haunting. The images are raw and stark, with shy, porcelain children -- they too being easily overlooked in their time -- standing on anonymous busy street corners or in factories among towering machines. Hine’s pictures allowed these children to be seen, their stories to be documented and remembered in a time when childhood was a luxury denied to many. So, too, does Dyckman’s poetry act as a means of documentation that transcends time and makes the stories of these children as relevant today as they were 100 years ago.
Many of the poems have no immediately obvious titles or even endings. At times, they begin to flow together like one long poem, one long story beautifully narrated by someone who can see the harsh realities of early 1900’s life, but still appreciate the beauty in ordinary experiences. Seven lines on one page, two on the next, and two on the one after that. There is only one title among these pages, but with so much space in-between, one begins to question whether these drifting lines should be read together or separately. This ambiguity, rather than feeling arbitrary, requires that the reader determine how and when to find connections across the text.
The constant in Dyckman’s poetry is the examination and exploration of people. There are times when the children’s voices in the poems become so powerful that you can almost feel yourself in their stories: “…as I walk/ the coin sewn safely in my hem/ knocks against my ankle bone…” Some of the poems seem muddled, like a child trying to make sense of a large and frightening world, holding most firmly to the details of their daily lives: “…the spool moving so fast/ I attend to it,/ a machine twice me in height and a single bulb/ not lit hangs over row’s end…” Other poems describe the poor, laboring children in just the right balance of detail and ambiguity to make them come alive in your imagination: “…believe in waiting/ wait begging/ beg wondrous…” These, like many of Dyckman’s poems, are more felt than understood.
The first photograph we see in this book is of a small boy standing on a street corner, the shadow of Hine and his camera cast before the child’s feet. “…I grind the blade push the cart/ of fish or to please/ a stranger in a fine new coat/ let him take my photograph…” Hine leaves his subtle impression on the picture, but it only works to add nuance and beauty to the image. Dyckman leaves her own mark through her poetry, but one gets the decided impression that, like Hine, she is just the one holding the camera.
Lewis Hine worked to bring attention to the plight of child laborers in his time. He fought for those without a voice. Susanne Dyckman’s poetry, at long last, gives these children a voice, ignoring the once common wisdom that children should be seen and not heard. Perhaps it is their voice we hear pleading, demanding, stating across the century… mercy.