Are humans, self-involved creatures that we are, compelled to relate to others? Perhaps another way of asking this might be: Do we tend to reach for familiarity in others in order to reassure ourselves that we are, alas, similar? Reading Yusef Komunyakaa’s “The Blue Machinery of Summer,” a captivating essay that evokes questions about social class, higher education, attraction, and the Vietnam War, I fell into my usual routine of comparing my life to that of the author. Of course, his autobiography would read very differently from my own but I could make a case for comparison that might be reasonably justified. Komunyakaa’s socio-economic plight, no matter how many decades before mine, boasts a song I’ve sung since financial lack stole away my carefree demeanor. Yet before I explain our shared battle hymn, I should convey what striking features of the essay churn in my mind.
For reasons soon to be shared, I became immediately attracted to Komunyakaa’s recount of his industrial summer job. An essayist may lose the reader if he or she loses credibility, but I can say with conviction that Komunyakaa proved himself credible. As the daughter of a factory worker, I can attest I’ve heard these same stories about the assembly line from my father. For example, a revisited subject in “The Blue Machinery of Summer” is work mortality. Referred to as beasts, the machines are recalled as having “reminded everyone within earshot of terrifying and sobering accidents.” (p. 75). A vivid memory offers itself to me as I read that sentence.
Years ago I visited my dad’s factory as part of a “family day” event hosted by his company. The assembly machines were shut down for the day and family members were invited to walk the plant alongside employees. Instinctively, my dad repeatedly put his arm out in front of my tiny body, creating a protective barrier between me and the machines. Although the machines actually posed no threat on family day, horrific work casualties have been so deeply imprinted in my father’s memory that he’s adopted factory-specific defensive traits.
Komunyakaa’s experiences in blue collar America present more than simply common ground between factory workers. The questions he raises about higher education and financially humble backgrounds are complemented by a well-employed Voltaire quote. It begins, “All the poor are not unhappy. The greater number are born in that state, and constant labor prevents them from too sensibly feeling their situation; but when they do they strongly feel it…” (p. 77). I think about this quote and then I think about the variety of lessons I’ve learned by way of higher education. As a third year student, I’ve discovered that higher education brings awareness to students’ lives, exposing us to questions that are often intimidating; frightening. One of these common but rather frightening questions can be found near the essay’s conclusion, as the author asks, “Did education mean moving from one class to the next? My grandmothers told me again and again that one could scale a mountain with a good education. But could I still talk to them, to my parents, my siblings? I would try to live in two worlds—at the very least.” (p. 80).
As the daughter of a 23-year assembly line veteran and a diligent custodian, I’m aware that my background is deeply embedded in lower-class America. I have become an exception in my family—an exception so far as education and career opportunities are concerned—and, just as Voltaire promised, I have come to feel my family’s struggle with great intensity. My parents are kept so occupied by bills and industrious work that their financial pangs go largely without notice. In other words, they have grown so accustomed to economic disparities that they are no longer easily separated from them. As I work toward my bachelor’s degree and fulfill my role at a white collar job, obeying the ever-present societal orders to pull myself up by my boot straps, I feel myself occupying two different worlds: one, a place where a glass ceiling is ever-present, and the other where I am ever-capable. I believe this is the kind of paradox Yusef Komunyakaa commemorates with “The Blue Machinery of Summer.”
Komunyakaa, Yusef. “The Blue Machinery of Summer.” The Best American Essays. Ed. Robert Atwan. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014. 72-80. Print.