October 2006

Jason B. Jones


The Book of Jobs: Poems by Kathryn Maris

Kathryn Maris's title, The Book of Jobs, refers not to afflicted heroes of the Hebrew Bible, nor to Apple's Steve, but simply to occupations: The "book of jobs" at a university career center that a liberal arts major might consult when she is, as Maris writes, "unemployed in a world of employment." Or, at least, might've consulted until recently, before the multicolored flyers and faxed announcements all moved online. And if today's students might be amused at the quaintness of Maris's image, well, her poems don't primarily address them. Instead, they address the putatively more adult problem of waking up one morning "bloated with identity," when one meets "again and again the same conflict."

Maris writes in a lyric mode, with quiet wit and a self-consciously wise perspective joined with a good eye for detail. (You're not likely to forget the "unexpecting face" of a man knocked "somersaulting . . . /above a hood.") And if that sounds a little dull, that seems to be part of her point: These are workaday poems, and their insight or appeal will depend on whether one recognizes oneself in work, "a turgid mirror/whose revelations quiver/in recalculation:/we are something today;/we are nothing today./We are something today;/we are nothing tomorrow." The reverberating r in these lines makes audible Maris's central aim of downshifting, as it were, from "revelation" to "recalculation."

This recalculation is probably as much psychic as it is rational, for The Book of Jobs is obsessed with the psychoanalytic concept of transference. For Freud, transference names the curious process by which analysands repeat past conflicts in the present, to the extent that they might treat the analyst as a mother or father. He variously -- and sometimes simultaneously -- thought that transference was the greatest obstacle to analysis and the engine of its work. The Book of Jobs plays with this idea, both as a psychical phenomenon and as a metaphor for the will to poetry. In "Transference," Maris acknowledges that "I prefer a ghost in shoes to a man, / for ghosts can be filled." (That we miss, though just barely, a sexual image here is anticipated in the poem: "I'm a cold girl.") Wryly self-protective, she binds her poetic craft tightly to this preference for ghosts, noting later that she "filled them with a name." On this view, the very specificity of her poems ought to be read as an avoidance of the reality of other persons -- as she puts it elsewhere, she oscillates "between my fear of intrusion/and my dread of isolation." Filling ghosts navigates these shoals nicely, because as she reminds us, poets and photographers are always "interfering / in what isn't ours, using things to our heart's content."

As this last example makes clear, what's interesting about Maris's use of transference isn't her own conflicts, whatever those might be. Instead, transference points up her interest in the way poetry both veils and discloses the world -- in a word, it recalculates our relationship to it. This is a risky strategy; if poets and photographers repurpose the lives of others, Maris's speaker wonders in "Greek Funeral," "Must I be exposed, too, / for three days, my body a shell to be filled by misunderstanding?" The answer can only be "yes," since, as we've already seen, ghosts need to be filled with meaning, and that meaning is supplied by others. It's telling that the speaker worries here about her body being "filled," as opposed to her own more spectral interests.

What gives these meditations about language some kick is Maris's quietly moving ability to register loss. (As she promises "language," "I will stop wanting, if you stop/showing me up, exposing me as wanting.") The poems about relationships, sexual or maternal, in this collection consistently suggest how others can show us our inmost desires. In the opening poem, "Gangster," an "armchair sociopath, gray-eyed genius of devotion" is required to show the speaker "my mislaid self." She meets a professor and "loved him for his discovery,/for his discovery was my loss." She admires a waiter "because of the immediacy/of his art: the art of perceiving want/even before its germination." What's disappointing to the speaker is how readily this enigmatic loss or want becomes converted into "the single soiled sheet" of sexuality.

To disrupt the effortless conversion of "want" into "sex," or more generally of poetry into banality, Maris offers the syncopated image of cardiac arrhythmia. While at the "Greek Funeral," "my arrhythmia is bad today" (glancing at Eliot: "My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad"), which is surely an awful condition for a poet. And in "The Münchausen Lady," this arrhythmia becomes a full-fledged metaphor for these ambivalent poems: "I sometimes feel in my heart/The beating and the caesura:/The beating of now, the caesura of tomorrow/That I hear in the day, in the dark, in fear." It is hard to disentangle death and hope in these lines -- as it is throughout this collection, which finds the speaker believing "sometimes in freedom and other times in annihilation." But this is also a poem about how "pain was a sham/As was the recitation of agony." In all of these poems, that something is false doesn't mean it has no effect: It has the clarifying effect of poetry: After all, the collection opens with the command, "Believe this lie and it will save you."

The Book of Jobs is remarkably cohesive; the interplay of lines and images across poems lends so much to the reading that I almost wonder how they will stand up on their own. For example, the arrhythmia I've just been discussing is balanced by her unborn child's "heart that works," with its "swift, regular beats on the incommensurate screen." Likewise, her own heart is imagined as a carousel wheel run by, alternately, a bored "woman in a ticket booth" and a vaguely hostile male operator, and she wonders if it will "stop and no one will know." This play with repetition keeps Maris's preferred images from congealing into a mythology; instead, there is only the pleasure of the work: "My practice makes my pittance my pittance sustains."

The Book of Jobs: Poems by Kathryn Maris
Four Way Books
ISBN: 1884800734
60 pages