DIAGRAM Essay Winner Matthew Glenwood: “John Henry’s Tracks”

Online multimedia journal DIAGRAM, edited by poet Ander Monson, is a uniquely satisfying blend of the surreal, the philosophical, and the darkly humorous. In addition to original poetry and prose, they feature offbeat and obscure images from specialized texts, hence the journal’s name. Ever wondered about the proper proportions of a love seat? Do you know everything you ought to know about the appurtenances of perpendicular drinking? Perhaps you need ideas for unusual leg positions. DIAGRAM has it all.

On a more serious note, Matthew Glenwood, the winner of their most recent Hybrid Essay Contest, offers the rhetorical masterpiece “John Henry’s Tracks”, a passionate piece of writing that draws connections between the famous folk song, plasma-selling, Hurricane Katrina, and the dehumanization of the poor. Sample:

John Henry was a mighty man,
Born with a ten-pound hammer in his hand.
—”John Henry”*

Some dirt-diggers in the Holy Land claimed to have found the bones of Jesus and his family. Jesus’ son, too. We’ll probably never know for sure if those were the holy bones or not. That kind of news could prove ungentle to dreamers. Like finding the remains of Amelia Earhart under her front porch steps, or the skeleton of a baby bird beneath its nest. We would hope for a wider arc to the hero’s journey than bones at the starting point. It could be called bad news if Jesus, the alleged foreman of Heaven, left bones behind. News that says nobody’s going very far.

But it wouldn’t be the whole truth. There is somewhere to go.

We can go sell our plasma for fifty American dollars a week.

The journey to the Biolife Plasma Center in Marquette, Michigan came easy for me. I just had to follow an abandoned train track for a few blocks. The track met the edge of the woods along the shore of Lake Superior; rabbit, chipmunk and deer crisscrossed it as beasties would any ready made trail, for there were no tracks left on that line. The rattle of my mountain bike startled ducks from the shallow waters of the ditch alongside. In winter, the flat, open space doubled as a cross country ski trail. You might say everything ran on that track except for rails.

The region, too poor to have a reason to run its trains, pulled up many of its train tracks, and commerce that way moved at the speed of wild grass. The poverty of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is probably why the plasma company came to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. That and the local college students, the reliably poor. As any farmer with a bad back could tell you, the easiest of tall crops to harvest is one that stoops to meet the hand of the harvester.

At the plasma center, technicians tap into the natural resource of your veins. The process takes, at most, a couple hours, and you’re paid for it. It’s easy money, and couldn’t come much easier; all you have to do is exist. The plasma company calls itself a “donation center”, but really it is a selling center. Poor people coming to sell the one possession they unquestionably own: the materials of their being. Take away those materials and the world would have no more poor.

Our folk songs say that John Henry could drive steel harder and faster than any man. The job of a steel driver was to pound holes in rock by hammering a long metal drill held and rotated by another man known as a shaker. Dynamite was then dropped into those holes—tunnels blasted into mountain stone. Steel driving was done for the mean benefit of the train companies laying track across the nation. In other versions of the song, steel driving was intermixed with pounding spike into the rail lines.

One day a salesman brought a new steam-driven drill to the line. John Henry, fearing for his job and for the jobs of his fellow rail workers, challenged the machine to a contest. John Henry declared to his captain:

Lord, a man aint nothin’ but a man
But before I let that steam-drill beat me down
I’m gonna die with a hammer in my hand

John Henry won. But after beating the machine, he suffered a heart attack and died. That’s to say, he could do no more work for the train company.

Like Jesus, no one can prove the John Henry of legend. Some stories say he was an ex-slave working for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway during the Reconstruction days of the South, following the Civil War. People disagree on where, and if, the events of the song took place. One man thinks the contest of hammers happened in Talcott, West Virgina. But everybody knows that you’ve got to bite the coins that come out of Talcott.

About twenty years ago, a man in my hometown got caught in one of the big machines of the mining company. A rock crusher, if I remember right. He was the father of a classmate. I ought to have attended the funeral, but didn’t. In those high school days I was discovering the books of the American Transcendentalists: Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau. “Transcendentalism” was a big word to me at the time. The idea of it is that you can ride your porch swing to the truth of all flowers. The notion sounds sound to me, still. But, being young, I felt as if I had inherited a mansion up in the blue air; as if everything wrong were, with an idea, suddenly right.

The daughter of the killed miner, my classmate, needed some consoling, but I was too shy, too awkward at social graces, to be one of the people to give it. I had no consoling to give. Her father was a good man of Finnish descent; he left behind a large family. The family had a new lesson to learn about the worst of all possible outcomes. As for me, I had my books which said spirit dances with matter.

Much of my life has passed since those books. Those Yankee writers of old are truer to me now than when I was young, and it’s likely that I need them more now. But an idea isn’t much true unless we are willing to wear its dirt. A frog of ugly sits at the center of true, and his appetite is Void.

Rather than the gift of a mansion in the sky, transcendence now seems to me a lifetime of lonely carpentry. Carpentry on a house nobody can see. And that house won’t shelter from the rain, but make us wetter. Those who ply this trade might not finish even the front steps before the cold evening comes on, before the closing whistle blows. Maybe no one completes the house called Idealism— built, as it is, on the foundation that is the suffering of the world. The hammer is usually abandoned with much work left to do; it hums only a little while with the vibrations of the last nail driven, until stillness takes it.

Had the good miner’s death happened today, I would’ve gone to the funeral. The fact about our portion of transcendence is that some of us get flattened in rock crushers. The fact is that there is blood on the machine.

And in the machine.

Sometimes the crashing waves of Lake Superior, powered by strong winds, sounded like a train through my apartment window. But, in the city of Marquette, the only real locomotion taking place was the centrifugal force of the Autoapheresis-C machine (made by the Baxter corporation) separating plasma from blood. The word “apheresis” is Greek for “take away”.

Read the rest here. Read another piece by this author in DIAGRAM 1.6.