Watching a Man Break a Dog's Back. Harbour Publishing
Kelly, it’s neat to be reviewing Tom Wayman’s new book as part of our conversation about work poetry and ecopoetry. Although I have read a few of Wayman’s poetry collections, I’m more familiar with his edited anthologies and literary criticism about what he calls “the new, insider’s, work writing” (“Work and Silence” 79), written about work the writers have done themselves. So, while reading this book of collected poems written after Wayman’s retirement from academia and loosely grouped around politics, poetics, and elegies, I kept wondering, is this work poetry?
In his preface to the section called “A Door in a Wood: Words,” Wayman critiques “the concept of ‘work-life balance,’ a goal which apparently assumes we are not alive—not entitled to live—at our place of employment every bit as much as we are during our hours off the job” (84). Influenced by workers, Marxists, and feminists, Wayman seems to reject the distinction between living and working by focusing on the poetics of what we might call life-work or a life’s work. As in the poem “Fifty Years of Stacking Chairs,” which emphasizes the physical labour involved in social justice and community activism, the poems in this book are insider work poetry about Wayman’s life-work as a writer, labourer, teacher, activist, and advocate. They are also part of a long tradition of Canadian worker poetry, and I see Wayman situating his poetry within this tradition through, for example, his many references to trees (worker-like conifers and “bare-limbed moaners” ) that echo the logger poetry of Robert Swanson and Peter Trower. Similarly, his series of elegies and self-elegies enacts a becoming-less of the white male poet that both recalls and subverts the cloying performances of humility in the envois written by Swanson, Robert Service, and others. In his elegy for Patrick Lane, one of the most memorable poems in the collection, Wayman reminds readers of Lane’s roots and reclaims him as a work poet. Wayman’s fond recollection of Lane calling a “white-shaming” statement by an Indigenous dancer “Bullshit” demonstrates how this is also a timely book that engages, messily, a poetics of world-making in “dark times”—a life’s work where Wayman, like the rest of us, still has work to do (73).
I agree, Melanie, that this book belongs within the work writing tradition, where Wayman has been instrumental for decades. Many of these poems are about manual labour (for example, “The Stain”), labour activism (“Leaflets”), and academia (“How I Achieved Tenure”), a trajectory which reflects Wayman’s own career. Any consideration of human labour and industry seems incomplete, though, unless it also looks at the impacts on the natural world. And Wayman does exactly this, with poems that constantly expose and explore the entanglement of work poetry with ecopoetry. Natural and built environments are given voice, and the lines between them are blurred, as trees, mist, and snowplows are personified. Forests are negatively affected by politics and war, a community is maintained by both tourists and beavers, a river and its human neighbours become exhausted together. Work poetry and ecopoetry begin to appear inseparable.
I’d like to close with a look at one work ecopoem. According to the introductory notes, “O Calgary” points to “a set of beliefs and behaviours popularly ascribed . . . to Calgarians” (3). While Wayman claims no interest in impugning the actual city, he suggests that Calgary is a symbol of the “abhorred values and actions . . . emblematic of the personal and social distortions arising from the pursuit of wealth above every other concern” (3). Hyperbolic, humorous vignettes of prosperity—cash overflows the banks of the Bow River, for example, and pools on a barroom floor—are juxtaposed with scenes of injustice and cruelty: “In Calgary,” the narrator intones, “I saw the toe of a cowboy boot / rupture the spleen of a man begging” (12). These may be oversimplified “ugly Albertan” stereotypes, but the poem ends on a thoughtful note. The figurative Calgarians are ultimately motivated by their fear of losing a way of life; it is up to the reader to decide if they merit our sympathy.
While Watching a Man Break a Dog’s Back is rooted in lineages of both work literature and nature writing, it is also an unflinching snapshot of our own times: their divisive politics, their accelerating corporate and industrial violence against poor and marginalized peoples and against the biosphere. Here are angry rants, wistful meditations, and difficult questions. “Amid so many words,” Wayman asks, “where in a spectrum of needs, desires, hopes do we locate the authentically human?” (84).
Wayman, Tom. “Work and Silence.” Afterword. The Order in Which We Do Things: The Poetry of Tom Wayman, edited by Owen Percy, Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2014, pp. 79-86.