Book Review: The Buddha in Racine—Saturday Night Sage by Noah C. Lekas

Saturday Night Sage
by Noah C. Lekas
Blind Owl

Reviewed by Carr Harkrader

In Noah Lekas’ new poetry collection, Saturday Night Sage, Buddha’s divine path is paved over with Wisconsin asphalt. Writing in “the shadow of the second shift,” Lekas tells of the struggles of working-class laborers through poems equally acerbic and transcendental. 

The white working class of the Midwest has been the subject of numerous observations over the past years. They are, depending on one’s views, the beating heartbeat of America, narcotic-addled elegiac hillbillies, the “collateral damage” of the neo-liberal economic order, to blame for Trump’s victory, and/or the necessary element to any Democratic comeback.  As Lekas writes, they are “canonized by an infographic/& another promise/that today’s problems/didn’t exist yesterday.” 

Thankfully, Lekas avoids most of these tropes as his collection unfurls, since Lekas is one of those subjects. If nothing else, the collection is a proudly blunt recording of labor in America. Lekas doesn’t exult in the work, find it joyous, or even uncover some redemptive element to the “sobering humility” of industrial toil. “When the light bulb is your horizon,” as he writes in the pointedly titled “Nothing to Live Up To,” the “sea & the bath tub hold water just the same.” Work is work, drinks are drunk, and suffering is suffused throughout this world of the minimum wage. Perhaps this is why Lekas does not rely solely on Christian notions of redemption, but instead summons celestial figures from Buddhism and Hinduism that are more attuned to the present than any long-promised but never delivered heavenly hope.

The broken dreamers of the poems entwine themselves with these symbols of Eastern religions, with many of the poems calling out to Buddha or brahmajyoti (a spiritual essence in the atmosphere).  It doesn’t always work. Some of the poems verge into “late-night high school boy soliloquies after reading the abridged Bhagavad Gita” territory. They can be maudlin, veering towards the sentimental with the sheen of the mystical. But those are scattered bits in an otherwise compelling collection.

Echoing the hopes of the struggling booze hounds and second shift workers, the language of the poems is almost artfully suppressive; making the compression of deities with disability pay seem like a natural development. Like the drunks they talk about in Main Street bars, the poems often end their oration with a sigh and stifled cry; you can imagine a calloused fist banging on the end of a wooden bar. In ‘Minimum Wage Mantra,” Lekas melds salvation and urination, as prayers for the practical come before any transcendence:

Before you see

the nurse you’ll need

to give them some pee.

If it comes back positive

They ain’t paying a cent

For your healing.

Resurrection pending sobriety

The poems, few longer than a page, are at their best when the lines and images scratch together like this; their friction creating a slow burn of new perceptions. If Racine and its surrounding “industrial flatlands” are so often portrayed as America’s depressing specter of decline, then it makes sense to call on dukkha, a Buddhist concept of direful suffering or stress, for a metaphysical loan of sorts. Chicago’s own Studs Terkel wrote that “most of us have jobs too small for our spirits.” And, Lekas might add, the take-home pay ain’t big in comparison either.

Saturday Night Sage by Noah C. Lekas is available for $15 at the Blind Owl site.

Carr Harkrader is a writer and educator living in Chicago. He works for a nonprofit where he writes and designs online educational resources and content. Originally from North Carolina, he is often the slowest talker amongst any group of Northerners. He enjoys both crappy reality tv and literary fiction, while often not really grasping the meaning of either.

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