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Saturday, 2 February 2008

Guest Review: Crowther On Maris


Claire Crowther reviews
The Book of Jobs
by Kathryn Maris

I, for one, appreciate the North American presence in the UK poetry scene. I don’t know if it is as pronounced outside London as in the capital, where you can often hear Americans read. This dripfeed of an alternative English has certainly nourished my own work. Indeed, from Eliot and Pound a hundred years ago through Sylvia Plath to our own time with Michael Donaghy, Anne Stevenson and latterly such stimulating arrivals as Carrie Etter, Jane Yeh and Tamar Yoseloff, there’s a tradition that has made a huge impact on British poetry. Even short trips have helped. A fascinating bond developed between American Robert Frost and Welsh-English Edward Thomas during Frost’s stay in Beaconsfield and Gloucestershire before the first world war, allowing both to realise their poetic genius (though it might have contributed to Thomas’ demise as Frost blamed himself for encouraging Thomas to enlist).

New Yorker Kathryn Maris’ established presence in London, as a teacher since 1999 as well as a writer, is perhaps lending some upcoming voices a different edge. Her first collection The Book of Jobs (published in New York by Four Way Books) offers a distinctive American voice. Maris has drawn attention to the chasm between these different worlds. On settling in England, she says: "I started to discover how different the aesthetics are. It’s hard to say exactly how they’re different, but in general I find British poetry more wedded to the Anglo-Saxon tradition than American poetry. The iambic pentameter line is still more prevalent in the UK - it’s almost the norm rather than the exception, or at least it feels that way. And UK poets never seem to get bored of sonnets, and nor do judges of the many poetry competitions that run here."*

However, a "London gloom" that "will out even in June" (p21) is a dominant tone in this collection. Maris’ theme is employment, gainful or otherwise, hence the title (which refers to the book of job listings once used by a university careers office). It is not a narrow theme – how we spend our adult lives defines us and Maris uses jobs to encompass the subjection of the unpaid as well as to pick out faces from the faceless crowd.

One tactic is to observe the interplay of genders, races and ages. For example, the job of artists’ model, which Maris herself has done, allows the poet to explore poetry via the image of the male gaze. Both painters in the poem "Figure Painting" (p29) are male, both models are female. Germaine Greer recently said: "It is a truism of feminist history, that women have been regarded primarily as body, passive, fertile, body… If women artists were ever to engage with anything, they were going to have to engage with body…" (The Guardian 28.00.08 p28)

Greer points out that recent women artists have chosen their own body as subject and asks: "Why does a female artist need to use flesh in the first place?" Greer’s answer is that an artist doesn’t and is risking her own work to do so. I don’t think "Figure Painting" is a failed poem even though the last stanza looks at first like a female submission. In fact, as soon as you’ve read it, the whole poem billows out into the mainstream thrust of this book – that poetry can take control of powerlessness:

My work thrills me:
billowing in someone’s
better vision.

Maris’ technique is to use very simple language, short lines, develop simple stories making simple points. Within that, she carefully constructs a metaphor of mutual dependency which complicates the simple truth that most jobs are boring, low paid or not available. T he syntax of "Figure Painting" emphasises mutual dependency between stanzas and sentence parts by using a lot of colons, semicolons and dashes. There’s also strategic use of enjambment. None of this is so marked as to distract the reader who will hardly notice what’s going on technically. How about:

This is the gestation room: this
studio, maroon in mood, a use-
spattered, sixth-floor dungeon.

(p29)

for a quietly packed first stanza? Roles are reversed, in that men are giving birth here not women – the two female models sit, waiting for the men to produce. In fact, Maris is quoted as saying that her job as model allowed her time to gestate these poems: "though [modelling] was tiring, I look back on it as a happy time, because it was during those hours of stillness that I began to shape in my mind some of the poems that would later appear in The Book of Jobs."*

There is sexual tension, though, which crackles throughout this collection:

The antique heater sparks
like a three-legged dragon

just feet from Michele and me.

(p29)

An art class is one among many educational settings. Jobs here are educations – a narrative of learning who you are in the world. There are many education-related terms – "professor", "studied", "educated". The interface between childhood and adulthood is another way of looking at innocence and experience. There’s a hint of Blake, "At the fence of the world" (p19), looking out and in. To guide the reader, there is usually a narrator who skips between self-analysis and observation of other faceless workers.

Hints of folk-fairytale-riddle-ghost story work well with Maris’ bare style and sudden eruptions of modern detail ("My dress is Belgian deconstructionist’" p5) add to the pace. She does wry wit well and I smiled often – as in:

There was no clue
as to the contents of his toolbox

(p16)

Or more self-consciously in "Language, I Have Wanted", a poem in which the narrator comes to terms with a desire for language and its reluctance to allow her full play:

at times I still want more from you,
or less. But I will stop wanting, if you stop

showing me up, exposing me as wanting

(p33)

Maris has said (perhaps self-deprecatingly) that her use of simple language is to avoid boring the reader: "I like my poems to be spare because I have an unshakeable paranoia that I’m boring, so I compensate by avoiding wordiness. But at the same time the poems are powered (I hope) by a degree of wit, and probably some eccentricity too. “Work Horse” is a particularly spare poem, because it’s a cruel poem, the cruelest poem I’ve ever written. So it’s direct, barbed and terse."*

Cruelty is inescapable in this collection, not just in "Work Horse". There are blows, stalkings, burdens, imprisonment, ruin, sadness, even children sold for love. Unsurprisingly, these poems expound over and over the idea that the inside and outside of people, things, states of mind are either shells needing to be filled or emptiness asking for enclosure – either way "wanting".

On one level, this may reflect the poet's experience as a long-term visitor to another culture. I once spent the best part of a year in California and know how a much-welcomed visitor can be lost beneath their culture tags. English was suddenly all I was. You can become needy even while taking in the new.

Many current collections deal with the nature of writing poetry and this one does so in terms of the central theme of emptiness. This may have a psychotherapeutic cast – as in her dealing with transference, the replicating of a childhood relationship in an adult one. The short poem "Transference" uses the verb "fill" twice and relates filling to language: "I call them bodies. (I’ve filled them with a name.)"

"Hansel in the Cage" uses a well known fairytale to express the paradox of apparent freedom being in fact containment : ‘Hunger: our ruin./Our bodies: our ruins.’ (p8)

Images of full and empty states alternate through the book. Though the title refers to jobs as in employment, even the job-centred poems can seem simply metaphors for the cage and its contents. Uninhabited planet, an entered bed, the locked door, the burgled room – metaphors of stripping and replenishment abound. And technically, the spare, the cold and the bare words, stanzas and shapes on the page, are never allowed flesh, warmth or decoration.

Unlike Germaine Greer, I prefer to look beyond the subject matter of a woman artist’s body to professional virtuosity in the piece itself, and in the relationship between collected pieces. A play of structure against meaning makes a powerful and satisfying set of artworks, in poetry at least.

* quotes from A Conversation with Kathryn Maris by Jason B. Jones, December 2007, posted on bookslut.com, accessed on January 30th 2008


Claire Crowther's poetry has been selected for several anthologies; current examples are We are Twenty People (Enitharmon Spring 2007) and Only Connect (Cinnamon Press 2007). Her first collection Stretch of Closures (Shearsman Press) was published in January 2007.
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