Line Study of a Motel Clerk by Allison Pitinii Davis
Published in 2017 by a small publisher called Baobab Press, Line Study of a Motel Clerk went under my radar until recently. These tightly-crafted poems circle themes of labor and immigration, creating a family portrait of Jewish immigrants in the Rust Belt. A line study, in drawing, focuses creating a simple image using strokes of varying weights and angles rather than shading and color. That idea is present throughout the collection. Broad gestures illuminate the characters and voices, but the poems rarely stretch beyond a single page.
I'm drawn to the this book because of its handling of family history as it intersects with culture and class. The book includes a small family tree outlining the characters in the book: great grandparents with ties to Poland, Canada, Greece, and Ohio; four grandparents who are the main figures in the book (The Motel Clerk and his Wife, The Laundryman and his Wife); The Motel Owners' Son and The Laundry Owners' Daughter; and their daughters. The poems are mainly centered in and around the motel, and the paternal line of The Motel Clerk and the Motel Owners' Son are the primary characters throughout, but the family tree contextualizes the migrations that brought these families together.
In fact, the second section of the book is titled "Migrations" and showcases some of Davis's skill in crossing great distances in very few words. The first poem in the section is titled "The Line Moves at the Laundry (Niles, Ohio)" and it opens this way:
A woman from the same place as Pythagoras
ends up in Ohio. If Greece is one point and Ohio another,
what can solve for the distance between them?
The remaining poems in the section introduce us to the other people on the family tree, while also linking all of them to a broader cultural history, from Czarist Russia ("Between being horseman / in Czarist Russia") to the massacre by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State:
The Motel Clerk's at one end
of Ohev Tzedek's cemetery
and Sandra Scheuer's at the other. She was shot
walking to class at Kent State. His obituary
headline: "Owned Motel." I didn't know
either of them, my grandma
knew both. We set rocks on their icy graves,
These moments situate the family history inside of a broader history, and it's those links and gestures make these poems so compelling. In just the eight lines quoted above, the poem centers a Jewish identity and a deep connection to Ohio history. Davis also questions the ethics of including this history.
I've met her sister, and if I were her,
I'd be sick of people
historicizing my sister, parading her
as I'm parading her, as art
parades things, and for what?
Davis sketches rich and precise scene of visiting her grandfather's grave with her grandmother in only a handful of lines, showing a remarkable amount of economy and restraint.
Naming each of the major characters in these poems after their occupations means that the reader is continually reminded of class. These are immigrants who started small businesses in small towns in the U.S. Rust Belt. The Motel Clerk owns the business, but he also works there—and his son works there. The family lived in the motel until business was good enough that the Motel Clerk "bought a house / and moved his family out or Room 1." The motel serves primarily long haul truckers, who are ever-present in the poems, as both customers and friends. In "10-4," truckers spread the news of the Motel Clerk's death on CB radio: "Semis lined the exit. Drivers stopped in to pay respects."
But I break into your channel, O Daughters of Jerusalem,
to say the Motel Clerk left no myrrh
nor lapis for the fingers. He left a sign
that says MOTEL so big, no truck
can ever miss it, and compared to nectar,
are my songs of it not sweeter?
Line Study of a Motel Clerk is a family history through labor that feels consistently clear-eyed about the people involved. Davis isn't trying to create caricatures, nor are the poems indictments or hagiographies. They simply render—and render simply—a family continually trying to make a home in the world.