Dunkirk native uses poetry to overcome adversities

OBSERVER Photo by Damian Sebouhian: Jason Irwin stands in front of a sculpture of Don Quixote, holding two of his published books of poems “A Blister of Stars” (2016) and “Watering the Dead” (2008). Look for his fifth collection of poems to be published sometime in the middle of next year.

OBSERVER Photo by Damian Sebouhian: Jason Irwin stands in front of a sculpture of Don Quixote, holding two of his published books of poems “A Blister of Stars” (2016) and “Watering the Dead” (2008). Look for his fifth collection of poems to be published sometime in the middle of next year.

When Dunkirk native, poet and playwrighter Jason Irwin was 16 years old, he made a decision that would stay with him for the rest of his life. While most of his peers were considering what first car to best serve the cultural imperative of joy-riding and impressing the opposite sex, Irwin was imagining what life would be like without the use of one of his legs.

Irwin, born in 1971 with a genetic disease that peppered his body with a host of (mostly internal) birth defects, decided he could no longer live with the most obvious of them — his club foot. It had hindered his walking well beyond the awkward limp and was causing other muscle and skeletal issues he would have to deal with further down the line.

Thirty years after its amputation, Irwin says he can still feel from time to time, his missing foot’s ghostly presence. Like he has done so often in dealing with the unsightly, troubling, depressing concerns of life most people actively avoid, Irwin immortalized that feeling in a poem, a poem that can be found in his second collection of verse “Where You Are” (Night Ballet Press).

To an Amputated Foot

How I hated you then, lying on the fuzzy brown rug in my

parent’s room, staring up at me with that twisted nine-iron

face; a hunk of ginger root, or coral washed ashore. Yet

even now — with so many years between us — if I close my

eyes and lie perfectly still I can hear you calling my name.

Irwin’s poetry is emblematic of his ability to empathize and relate with the downtrodden, to give a voice to what others — including himself — might be tempted to deny, shun or discard.

His gentle sincere elegies both tell the blunt truth and seem to ask the reader to look beyond, that perhaps through reading his poems, we can experience a resurrection of sorts.

Take Irwin’s prose poem about one of his best childhood and young adult friends, written a decade after his death from a car accident.

The poem, addressed to the deceased friend, describes a tense moment between the narrator and the friend’s mother.

“We smiled at each other, fiddled our fingers, avoided each other’s gaze. Your high school photo, framed in gold, watched us from the mantle: the same picture from the newspaper.”

Such a simple, pure description, and Irwin’s eye spots the deeper significance as he juxtaposes the two pictures, revealing potential and its tragic demise.

The poem continues, drawing in the reader, the reader feeling almost uncomfortable with how uncomfortable the situation is. Until the last line, which challenges the real, invites the reader into more sublime territory:

“She speaks of people whose names I can no longer put faces to and confesses how she still searches the want ads for jobs you would’ve been good at…She never mentioned the car accident, or how she had blamed me for your drinking again, and I never told her about that night, after you died, how you visited me and we sat together until morning.”

Irwin’s parents divorced when he was young, his father a factory worker with conservative leanings, his a-political, yet quite religious mother, worked with the United Methodist Church.

Both the factory and the church are prominent figures in Irwin’s poems. In “Cadillacs,” Irwin shows us the struggle of workers who:

“toil in the purgatory

of Monday through Friday, men

hard as gravel, shredded and torn,

fingers gone, stripped like old bolts.

Men like my father, who talked

about Some Day, as if

it were an actual date

like Christmas or the 4th of July.”

Without directly pointing fingers or calling out for social justice, Irwin gracefully and honestly conveys the inherent unfairness of factory life, the gulf that separates the worker from the ones who own the factories.

“Men broken

by the promises of a good, hard

day, promises made by men

without mortgages or used cars,

men with soft hands.

After last call they wander

the car dealers with heavy feet

and lovesick eyes,

groping the Cadillacs

they will never buy.”

Irwin’s acute empathy perhaps was born of his own suffering, his spirit delivered into a body that seemed at odds with what was required for survival, yet ultimately found purchase within the rich soil of the mind.

This engendered Irwin with a sense of purpose and he was able to manage both his physical ailments and the depression that came with them, in no small part, through the act of writing.

“Today, I’m fine, I think,” Irwin said during an interview. “I’ve just adapted. It was difficult when I was young because I was in the hospital all the time. I had a lot of surgeries, getting my esophagus dilated because my esophagus was not connected to my stomach when I was born.

“Writing gave me something to live for, otherwise I’d be cashing you out at the grocery store tonight, giving you free beer.”

Irwin credits two people for getting him started on the path of poet and playwright: Gerry Crinnin and Dylan Thomas.

Crinnin, a poet and professor at Jamestown Community College, inspired Irwin through honesty and encouragement.

“I started writing poetry and showed (my work) to Gerry and he’d say, ‘You don’t know poetry from third base.’ It made me try harder.”

He stuck to it, devouring the works of the Latin poets Neruda, Lorca and Machado.

“I got a story published in 1999 in the Chautauqua newspaper and the editor suggested I take some writing classes in Chautauqua.”

After completing two writing workshops, Irwin applied to the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College. He was accepted and graduated from the prominent Yonkers institution in 2004.

He submitted what was then his thesis, to a writing contest, the Transcontinental First Book Award and came in first place for his collection titled “Watering the Dead.”

One reviewer of “Watering the Dead” called the volume “part love song, part elegy to the dying factory towns of America — nothing is lost, nothing forgotten.”

Irwin has since published three more volumes of poetry, the latest titled “A Blister of Stars” (2016, Low Ghost Press). A prolific writer and lover of theatre, Irwin has had a half-dozen of his plays produced, including two in California, one in Rhode Island and one in New York City.

Many of Irwin’s poems are meditations on what it’s like to live in Western New York, Dunkirk in particular.

Although he resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he makes it back to the area regularly to visit his parents and friends.

(From) “Going Home”:

I can hardly imagine what Dunkirk was like

when my mother was young, let alone

in 1851, when the first train arrived with President Fillmore

and Daniel Webster onboard.

There are people here who talk of leaving,

but only go as far as Bruce’s Corner Store,

or the Greek diner at the dock.

Maybe it’s the view of the hills to the south,

or the three smoke stacks

of the electric plant at sunset, that keep us here,

or maybe it’s the sound of my own voice,

reciting the streets named for birds and fish

as if they were the names of saints.

Irwin is currently working on his fifth volume of poetry and hopes to have it published by mid 2018.

Find Irwin’s blog with information on how to purchase his books at Jasonirwin.blogspot.com.