An ABC of Belly Work

by Peter Richardson
ISBN: 1550651811

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A Review of: An ABC of Belly Work
by Jennifer Varkonyi

Peter Richardson's second book An ABC of Belly Work possesses the ability to fulfill Tom Wayman's fondest wish: to see the subject of daily work come into its own as a worthy theme in writing; a high-realist, dirt-under-the-nails contender to challenge the reigning big three themes of death, love and nature. This is not to say that this poets bears the mark of Wayman's agenda-driven influence. Rather, he does something much more interesting: the best poems in this book succeed in such a way as to both prove and disprove Wayman's contentions regarding art and culture in society. Perhaps that's too enigmatic, too cutely paradoxical a statement (Wayman would no doubt be irked by its potential obscurity-factor). But there's truth in the paradox.
In 1976, Wayman, writing in Inside Job: Essays on the new work writing, considers the subject matter of the prevailing literature and its effect on contemporary Canadian society. Significantly absent, he argues, is a body of writing that deals with the experience of working for a living. Meanwhile, the available literature, according to Wayman, contributes dangerously to "cultural escapism":

"this writing is part of a larger culture industry that, in all its branches, does not encourage us to examine our daily lives, to understand the sources of our problems, and to act individually or collectively to improve our existence. The negative term for these products of our culture is that they are escapist. And as long as our literature overwhelmingly leads us into the bondage of beautiful dreams, or into following the imaginary problems of impossible people, our inevitable return to daily reality will be a disappointment."

It goes without saying, of course, that the subject of working for a living is certainly a worthy one. . .I dispute, however, Wayman's call for such a rigid prerequisite to a particular artistic endeavor. Further, the fact that this prerequisite actually has everything to do with vaulting personal experience above skilled expression seems to me to undermine any potential such an endeavor might have as art.
Wayman wants writing able to reflect the experience that the majority of Canadians have of working for a living. He has, in his demagoguery, made many assumptions on behalf of that majority. The most specious of these is that which maintains that this majority cannot read or interpret literature or art that functions on more than one level. He typically brandishes examples such as the poetry of Eliot and Pound to make his case air-tight, citing their "difficult and extremely cloudy" nature as reasons people believe that poetry is something they cannot-and possibly are not supposed to-understand. Granted, maybe Pound's Cantos isn't the best way to initiate a group of people familiar with auto-manufacturing rather than Modernism, but that's not to say that the sole alternative is to read or write poetry whose only formal quality (as bolstered in Wayman's tract) is the "anecdote".
An excellent case in point is Peter Richardson. An airport ramp worker for twenty five years, Richardson opens his new book with the title poem, whose vigour could warrant a poetry-sized sticker cautioning "contents under high pressure":

Here are the tie-downs for securing the dead,
Dry ice, nuclear medicines, cages
Full of raging minks or monkeys
That would clamp down on a glove,
Transforming it into a handle
You could lift the cage with.
Here are suitcases full of shaved differentials,
bowling balls, ploughshare parts,
bags whose contents give the impression
their owners do squat thrusts
on the decks of submarines
at Captain Nemo Camps for aspiring
middle management cadre.
The anaphoric "here" in each of the five stanzas comprising the poem's first section not only lends immediacy to the images being drawn out, as though passing before our eyes on a conveyor belt, but also creates the sense of a militaristic drill: some sergeant with mirror-shades barking out detail for ramp work. The effect is a voice that is precise and perceptive, full of humour that belies the matter-of-fact delivery. The language is clear and simple, yet the depth and richness of its formal qualities save the writing from falling into common, Waymanesque narrative.
This collection of poems is a strong second for Richardson. His themes are work, separation, new love, new life, family, remembrances, history, and fancy. The best poems are those in which Richardson lends his senses to us: the smell of the brewery in "Trackside Villa Apartments", the unbridled jolt of a newborn in "Packet", manic sifting of image and instance when faced with a step-son's suicide in "At Hotel-Dieu", the lingering ineffable quality of a stolen kiss in "Rogues". Richardson manages-and herein lies his strength-effortlessly to seam concrete description of everyday experiences with the vivid interior life that inevitably accompanies them. Language is always front and center, and though sometimes he delves into the abstract (roughly the second half of the book seems to be in another key, one more meditative and introverted), he does not drop into obfuscation. "The words are endowed with maximal weight," wrote British poet Michael Hofmann, in the LRB, of Lowell's early work. This same, "maximal weight," can be found in Richardson's most successful poems.
A couple of poems in the book, however, stand out for their brilliant rendering of experiences that are not had everyday, nor can they be had by everyone. I have seen Peter Richardson read several times in Montreal (he has recently moved to Gatineau), and on each occasion he has included the following poem in his repertoire. He stands casually with a hand in a pocket, his voice unhurried, holding the book-and it seems his poems-at a comfortable arm's length." Suitcases do get misrouted' I say", and thus begins the fabulously taut "Standby":

as he swabs my testicles with yellow
disinfectant, and one at a time,
separates the two halves of my
scrotum with forefinger and thumb,
wielding a local anesthetic, which
as I discuss the two automated
baggage sorting terminals, one
in Denver, the other in Hong Kong,
renders small talk possible.

Not only is this remarkable for plumbing (no pun intended), the vasectomy as material for poetry, but also for the careful interplay of the voice that we all use to get through uncomfortable situations, that which speaks of the work we do or the conditions of the roads and the weather, and the will of the body to act out, to do something.
The poem continues: "Surely / my hands don't want to be parked / on my chest, assisting from afar? / They want to stray to where tubes / are being cut, ends cauterized, / future paternity nul-and-voided." Again, the subtlety of the language (the hands that wish to "stray") coupled with the searing finality of the procedure create a perfect balance between gravity and levity. Whenever I turn my attention to this poem, I still clearly hear Richardson's own reading of it, remarkable for the way it affably carries you through the procedure, perhaps as was his own experience, marveling at the end at how efficient it all seems; and though there will be no outwardly visible sign, it is the inside-knowledge that shades the external. The final lines are innocuous on their own, but steeped in what has come before, they are charged with significance: "I slide off the bed-table, dress / and begin a week of lollygagging / far from the site of my livelihood: / those festivals of Airbus-319s, / wheeling up to painted stop lines / where stevedores are standing by."
There is also, in this book, a feminine counterpart that weighs in; a yin to the above yang. The "Coracle", for example, that hits the ground running with "Resident reaches in with latexed fingers/ between two-push contractions to say: It's not enough. Look, the head's / not turned all the way down." Instead of putting the reader, let alone the speaker, at arm's length from the action, (and any reader who has witnessed a birth will attest it is more affecting than the most suped-up action flick), the poem "reaches in" and puts us right in the middle of it. The scene morphs from circus ("clown nurse wields/ the suction cup") to see-saw deck of a ship in a roiling sea ("He's a deckhand on a hide boat in a gale./ As someone chants, the floor tilts./ It's littered with bloody compresses./ Bilge nurse foot-sweeps these aside.") The energy that comes off this poem is palpable, and there is not only an authentic blend of anxiety ("Good God, / thinks the husband. They're winging this.") but a rich, imaginative humour (the attending doctor "looks like a Mtis trapper getting ready / to weave babiche into shoe frames / for walking over smoking drifts"). Richardson's trademark perceptivity and hi-fi vocabulary are at their peak here.
To bring it all back home, this collection not only proves-a la Wayman-the suitability of "work" as topic for poetry (even "adhering" to the kind of work writing Wayman advocates: concerned with events, referential, and providing an insider's perspective), it also demonstrates-contra Wayman-that form and linguistic striving need not be relegated to the realm of the difficult and obscure. I'm reminded, here, of how Simon Armitage once praised Ted Hughes's poetry for its proof "that clarity and complexity can exist simultaneously, like clear, still water, into which a person can see to a ponderous depth." Perhaps when confronted with what seems complex, we just need to relax into it a little, trusting that our instincts will most always give us a starting point for a drop into that "ponderous depth." Certainly it seems to me that this poet-whose poetry flexes the muscle of language and pulls the weight of the stuff of life-hopes that his poems will "work" on readers in exactly that way.

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