Stephen R. Roberts' "Down in Mechanicsburg"
I recently discovered the wonderful resource that is Shari Wagner’s website, “Through the Sycamores.” Shari Wagner is the poet laureate of Indiana—I featured her poem “These Rocks” on an earlier episode of this podcast. As part of her role as state poet, she keeps a website where she highlights the work of other Indiana poets, as well as provides writing prompts. This month’s prompt, for example, is to write a poem inspired by a river. Shari accompanies her prompt with a couple of examples for inspiration.
It was on “Through the Sycamores” that I discovered Stephen R. Roberts, another Indiana poet, whose work I’d like to share with you today. Steve was born and raised in Indiana, and spent his career in the insurance business—in the tradition of the great modern poet Wallace Stevens. But while Stevens was an executive who worked behind a desk, Steve Roberts worked as an insurance adjuster, traveling to people’s homes. “It acquainted me with all sorts of people,” he says, “many of them characters of one sort or another.” Good material, in other words.
This poem, “Down in Mechanicsburg,” gives us a quick glimpse of some of these characters, and also of the overlooked, underemployed town they inhabit. It’s a melancholy poem. I admire the way Steve chooses language that lingers in the territory of the mechanical. In the first stanza, for instance, he describes the smile of an imaginary mechanic as “jacked-up” and “smeared across his face”—unusual, striking choices that make the character spring to life.
Down in Mechanicsburg
by Steve Roberts
There are three Mechanicsburgs in Indiana.
But you'd be hard pressed to find anyone
in any of the three with a wrench in hand,
grease on his jeans, and a jacked-up smile
smeared across his face in a welcome mode.
Some of the men are slouched on barstools
in the six taverns between them, lights
down, smoked up, the spatter of bar-talk
grinding just under the slow country
sounds on the battered jukebox.
In any one of them now someone is saying,
Ain't no better way or place to spend
a morning than right here.
And another one's nodding, not really
taking the statement under consideration.
Just nodding his head, his mind elsewhere, down
at the plant where he was this time last year,
banding boxes, packing axles. But not now,
not in these times with the factory down, the old
lady getting half days over at the dollar store.
There's good reason to be here in a bar
in any of the three Mechanicsburgs in Indiana,
credit due up to the chin with the next cold beer,
and a Bic lighter flickering in the dim light
off the deep end of the pool table.
You can find “Down in Mechanicsburg” on Shari Wagner’s website, Through the Sycamores. “Down in Mechanicsburg” was originally published in Big Muddy, Vol 11.1, Southeast Missouri State University. It also appears in Steve Roberts’ collection, Almost Music From Between Places, published by Chatter House Press.