Poems of the car wash

At the Car Wash by Arthur Russell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Arthur Russell‘s At the Car Wash, recent winner of the Rattle chapbook prize, is an extraordinary chapbook of poems centered around the author’s experiences working at his father’s car wash in the melting pot of Brooklyn back before the current wave of gentrification. Russell lived in both of the areas I did growing up, and his vivid poems bring to life the gritty, rough world of the borough at that time. But their true focus is the author’s complicated relationships with his parents, particularly his hard-hearted businessman of a father.

In form, the poems range from portraits of the people who worked at the car wash, like “Checkout Man” to broader conceptual pieces about the poet’s life’s choices, like “Burning Garbage.” The most powerful poem in the collection is “How to Replace a Toilet,” a grand summing up of the author’s upbringing and work in his dad’s business, with all the mixed feelings it entailed. Told as a how-to guide, it begins: “First, have a father, one who owns a car wash / where he employs poor Black men / preferably those who’ve come north in the Great Migration, / but any poor Black man will do / as long as they have historical disadvantages / that have translated into self-destructive behavior…”

I found this short collection touching, unsettling, and thought-provoking, and read through the entire chapbook in one sitting. Highly recommended. You can purchase it here.