The Art of Work
- Kate Braid (Author)
A Well-Mannered Storm: The Glenn Gould Poems. Caitlin Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Linda Frank (Author)
Kahlo: The World Split Open. Buschek Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Arleen Paré (Author)
Paper Trail. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Alice Major (Author)
The Office Tower Tales. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Crystal Hurdle
The late great Carol Shields, in promoting her novel Larry's Party, commented how much she disliked the then hugely popular film, Four Weddings and a Funeral, not because of its schmaltz, but because none of the characters worked.
These four highly original books of poetry explore the question of work. Is it relentless dailiness? : "we just do / the same things over and over every day / until we retire," says Sherry, the storyteller in The Office Tower Tales. In Paper Trail, Arleen Paré's narrator "spend[s] 60% [of her] working hours in an office . . . many stories up. They say the windows never open. This high up someone might jump." Work as avocation, as passion, has a better reputation in A Well-Mannered Storm and Kahlo: The World Split Open, exploring Glenn Gould's piano virtuosity and Frida Kahlo's painting, respectively.
The Glenn Gould Foundation issued press releases about Braid's book, and she did a reading tour with bassist Clyde Reed. Carefully researched and almost overly documented, the book concludes with five pages of Biographical Note and two pages each of notes on the poems and of selected sources. The rich poems about Gould and his music are interrupted by fan letters, from hearing-impaired k, revealed ultimately as Braid herself in the Museum of Civilisation, reverent over Gould's "realia" (and also "the hooked rugs of Emily Carr," recalling her earlier equally fascinating Inward to the Bones). Gould's love of/interpretation of Bach echoes k's of Goulds. His eccentricities are well balanced with his brilliance. On audience noise, "Here's impossible: reaching for ecstasy while someone . . . tears wrappers off his JuicyFruit." The poems contain disarming metaphors, "music a pearl that waits to form / around the ten dark seeds of my fingers." One wonders what Gould would think of k, whose letters (never sent?) are only obliquely answered. His audience he says "suck[s] me dry":"I am bound and tied by their adoring, / sappy eyes-their own genius, abandoned."
Gould wants silence to better hear his Bachian muse; Frida Kahlo, in Linda Frank's kaleidoscopic envisioning, wants love, she her own best subject. Both Braid and Frank use versions of found poems, increasing verisimilitude. While Braid's are carefully documented in the notes (including a grade 13 essay of Gould, his text on radio documentaries), Frank 's are pleasingly casual, identified as from diary entries or a letter in wee notes after poems. A glossary of flavourful Spanish, the only scaffolding, appears at the end of the book.
Frank's book, winner of a 2008 Bliss Carman award for poetry and short-listed for the 2009 Pat Lowther Award, focuses on the turbulent emotional life that fed Kahlo's art. In a seamless mix of first-and second-person poems, Frank creates a larger-than-life picture of Kahlo. They lurch with synesthesia, sensuality (as Braid's move with fierce rhythms). Frank works inductively, with names of Kahlo's friends and family in the titles prompting attentive reading.
Several works address husband and fellow painter Diego Rivera, one particularly heart-breaking, about his dalliance with her sister. "Morning After" sees Kahlo watching a falcon "[tear] the fresh meat from the small bones of a helpless tanager." Another stunner features a mock tribunal for Leon Trotsky, her lover. Several about paintings seem almost four-dimensional, and the images are vivid in the mind's eye. In "I Paint My Reality," Kahlo says, "my broken body / is politic, history, country / love, pain, the whole world. . . ." It, like every poem in the collection, teems with life, and this reviewer was distraught when the collection was finished. The final poem, "The Blue House," dated with Kahlo's death, asserts, buried like a commonplace, "[S] he lived her art."
Arleen Paré's Paper Trail, in NeWest's Nunatak First Fiction series, won the 2007 Victoria Butler Book Prize. However, the office-trapped administrator narrator tells her colleagues she is writing "experimental lyric prose," and Paré's book itself was also nominated for the Dorothy Livesay 2008 Poetry Prize.
The appealing narrator, with frequent direct addresses to confidant Franz Kafka, desires and fears retirement. Her image-dense stories alternate with those of her parents, the dad a salesperson, the mom a housewife, establishing a wide, rich, clear narrative arc. Her father "said my mother never worked // for money": the line break reveals much. Is work outside the home more "serious" than in it? Kafka offers to ghost-write her story, which is true but for the details: her aged parents do not live with her, are in fact dead; she is not married to Gregor (droll allusion), an itinerant entomologist, but is living with a female lover. Kafka's not-so-far-off metaphors about Caymans in a moat around her office tower and her body parts falling off bit by bit (so original!) reveal the frantic reality of her "fassster" life in "a small unstable state run by a mad dictator."
"Dolor," by Theodore Roethke, one of three epigraphs, is echoed in images of silt and silica, which Paré makes her own. "Another meeting ticks the fingers of my minute hand." Her office goes through a series of mergers, details noted at email@example.com, no chance of a respite but through, ironically, "enter[ing] the kingdom of heaven or some kind of pension plan." Though the dichotomies seem simple-"briefcase versus girlfriend" and "e-mail versus poem"-they are not. Literally trying to "write [her]self out," she is able to make the choice to leave only when it is thrust upon her. One is hopeful for her happier future.
The Office Tower Tales by Alice Major, winner of Trade Book of the Year-Fiction and the 2009 Pat Lowther Prize for best book of Poetry by a Canadian woman, is accomplished, whatever its amorphous genre. Its gender, though, is very much in the distaff camp. Three urban office workers, Pandora from Accounting, Aphrodite from Reception, and Sheherazad from Public Relations, in a modern-day Canterbury Tales, tell stories, many specifically about such workers as cabbies, secretaries, and waitresses. The cycle begins in April and ends in the early days of Jan. 2000 when the Y2K apocalypse has not come to pass, but patriarchy is still a stronghold.
Over coffee in the food court, and the twittering of magpies (a pleasant leitmotif), the trio reveals their lives, a too-young pregnant daughter about to relive her mother's life, a less-than-happy marriage, dissatisfaction with work dreams deferred. An office Romeo gets his comeuppance by inexplicable immersion in a Kahlo-esque surrealistic world, courtesy of his Mexican prey. The tales also focus on females' inability to push through the glass ceiling and "women's issues": disfiguring electrolysis, abortion, mammograms, menopause, even rape. Men do not come off well. Pandora, near the end, wishes, "what if men could make it out / of the Stone Age?" Sherry counters with a tale about male emperor penguins that raise their young. Hmm.
The cycle ends with the old in a new guise. Pandora's granddaughter has been born, one of the presents she receives is a stuffed penguin (!). The son-out-law, Duke, member of the newest order of man, does carry a diaper bag, but the women soon wrestle it from him. Who prevents change? Pandora picks up her granddaughter: "there you are darling, she says to hope / and lifts her out."
Despite the conclusion's sentimentality, the tales, vast in scope and execution, offer much. Post-menopausal biological mothers, for example, receive welcome barbs. A story about young mothers in 1733 and 1996, each commiting "this great and complicated sin" of killing a baby at birth, wrenches the heart. Also sad is a tale about Siamese daughters, not a monstrosity, who die, one at a time, soon after birth. The father, too (thankfully), feels grief.
Woman's lot is depicted as a hard one. Personal Secretary to the malevolent CEO's daughter (not even identified except in relation to her father) turns tail and runs home to her small town. Even the bitch-boss is literally unable to rise in the towers because of an ear disorder. The female police candidate, unable to complete the requisite chin-up, "Went bike-riding / for fun. Got an MBA. Gave up on the chin-ups." (Shouldn't cops, regardless of gender, be able to pull their own weight?) The auditors' comments vary, and Sherry "thinks of how her friends can hear / stories so differently," which is part of the delight of the collection, a literary coffee-klatch, with its fun anachronistic details of "eccentric livery of the bicycle courier" and "the cuirasse/ of pension plans . . ."
Sherry, by the book's end, like Paré's narrator, hopes to write herself out of the office tedium by enrolling in a course on documentary film writing. It seems a hopeful avocation, if not Kahlo's art or Gould's music, one that is both creative and true. And it would have made Shields, a spiritual feminist mentor, happy.
- Transforming Words by Laurie Aikman
Books reviewed: Green Culture: Environmental Rhetorica in Contemporary America by Stuart C. Brown and Carl G. Herndl and Singing Bone by Katharine Bitney
- Poet on Point by Brian Henderson
Books reviewed: Ursa Major by Robert Bringhurst
- Poèmes de l'Origine by Stéphane Girard
Books reviewed: La Lumière et L'heure by Andrée Lacelle and Tant de vie s'égare by Andrée Lacelle
- Indirections by Stephen Guy-Bray
Books reviewed: Contra/Diction by Brett Josef Grubisic and Written in the Skin by rob mclennan
- Les Chemins du poème by Thomas Mainguy
Books reviewed: Affûts, précédé Rue de nuit by Guy Cloutier, Les îles by Louise Cotnoir, and Origine des méridiens by Paul Bélanger
MLA: Hurdle, Crystal. The Art of Work. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #205 (Summer 2010), Queerly Canadian. (pg. 136 - 137)
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