Deborah Garrison turns the urban sophisticate's daily grind into funny, incisive verse.
By Elizabeth Manus
APRIL 13, 1998:
A WORKING GIRL CAN'T WIN AND OTHER POEMS, by Deborah Garrison. Random House, 65 pages, $15.
Might a poem like "Fight Song" be tailor-made for you at the end of a grim day?
Sometimes you have to say it:If you are a college-educated, clear-eyed female who works in a large city (ideally with words and not numbers), it might indeed. That's the demographic that poet Deborah Garrison belongs to, and it's the one that her first collection, A Working Girl Can't Win, will likely win over. The poems speak directly to her experience in work, in love, in friendship, and in sexual passion, and for women who can identify with Garrison -- a strong wife, a daughter cut off too soon from her father, a reader, a dreamer -- they speak volumes. By turns wry and lyrical, they spring with perfect rhythm, yet maintain a quiet elegance. And their levity means that they warrant no particularly elevated state of mind as a precondition for reading. They are as suitable to the subway car as to the sofa; they also make fine dinner-party company. But regardless of where they are read, the best ones will pull readers into Garrison's world at warp speed and keep them there for days.
It's a privileged sort of place -- imagine the world of the ideal New Yorker reader, outfitted with books and country houses, matching shoes and belts -- but the office still looms large. "Please Fire Me" makes a nice twin set with "Fight Song":
. . . Here comes another alpha male --Light verse, to be sure, but the poem reminds one that identity politics (unfortunately) do not spring from complete fiction. Garrison connects with today's working woman as well as the pros on Madison Avenue do. In "Worked Late on a Tuesday Night," the characterizations of career girls as "haggard beauties" and "vivid can-dos" may prickle with a note of damsel-in-
distressdom, yet they strike a sure chord. And the title poem has a real edge. A string of prying, outrageous questions, it performs the curious form of dissection that awaits so many ambitious women:
. . . Are her rootsThe theme of ambition, of desire, pulses throughout the collection, as if Garrison is asking, How can intelligent women assert themselves firmly and gracefully? And what is that worth at the end of the day?
In "Father R.I.P., Sums Me Up at Twenty-Three," the "answer to everything" is "a slender/zero, a silent shrug," which is more a gesture of defiance than of withdrawal. It shows up again in slightly different form in "Superior," in which she performs the appropriate gestures for the "thinker-aloud" boss man who interrupts her work:
She agreed, she agreed, she seconded his thesis,Ultimately it is the silent woman, her hunched posture his only potential clue to her resistance, who ranks superior. Polemical sorts might argue that such forms of gestural opposition affirm the experience of woman as a body (Virginia Woolf's idea), but the image of woman (or poetess) as phallic pencil surely undermines that.
Complementing the work poems are what might be called the love poems, in which Garrison keeps holding fast to passion, despite -- or possibly because of -- her having married at 21. Her frank professions of lust are refreshing, if not so deeply resonant. The speaker of "November on Her Way," for instance, is "full of nerve,/have to have you." Wanting is not a whiny activity; here is a woman who simply likes sex. Unfortunately, her ardor is often thwarted. It is her husband who, "always the last to know/about [his] own passion," is less interested in getting into bed. "Husband, Not at Home" hints at his retreat from spousal duty, but there is celebration in his very absence: "she likes him/almost best this way: away."
"A Kiss," which at times imitates a mashing session in rhythm and dialogue, locates an embrace in memory. Recalling how a kiss "contained the wish/to be toppled, to be on the floor . . . anywhere I might lie down," Garrison asks:
What?And in that final line, it is accretion that resonates more than loss. No so with many of the love poems; a working girl, even a happily married one, often finds that all her "fantasies/of seduction run up/against the rocks." The friendship poems depict a more satiating brand of love.
One of the book's special features is a tribute to Frost (specifically, A Boy's Will) in the form of witty descriptive notes in the table of contents -- for example, underneath "I Answer Your Question with a Question" is Here we go again (again). The homage would have worked better if the notes had also accompanied the poems; as it is, one has to flip back and forth, which mars the effect.
What we are left with by the end of the volume is a composite portrait of a young woman with strong female friendships, a healthy libido, and a good job. Garrison takes leave of us on Madison Avenue, futilely trying to hail a taxi one rainy night. Frustrated and cold, even crying a little, she stands with her gloveless hand in the air, today's lady liberty: wife, not at home.
Elizabeth Manus is editor of the PLS.
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