Kathryn Maris’ The Book of Jobs

Maris, Kathryn. The Book of Jobs. New York, NY: Four Way Books, 2006. (65 pages)

Kathryn Maris’ first collection of poetry, The Book of Jobs, offers the reader glimpses into the wonderment, humor, and suffering of the lives of those individuals and workers who often remain anonymous.
       Maris reflects on the idea of ‘work’ throughout the book. In the poem “Work Horse”, for instance, the speaker asks, “what is work anyway/ but a turgid mirror/whose revelations quiver/ in recalculation” (6). The spare verse and harsh r sounds bring to mind the cogs of a machine, an image which echoes the cover art by Bart van der Leck, where we see robot-like, nearly identical laborers toiling away.
       The first poems in the collection, however, do not seem to be explicit reflections on ‘work’, but revolve around questions of love, loss, and personal relationships. I wonder if she could have better eased the reader into the ‘job’ theme suggested by the title. “Gangster”, the first poem in the collection, was nonetheless interesting in its personification of abstract concepts like hunger: “I was educated against the love of the gangster./ But hunger: I must thank you/for teaching me possibility” (3). The same thing goes for loss: “Loss loved me, and suddenly: loss loved me not” (“Loss Loved Me” 4). While intriguing, the elusive content in these first few pieces sometimes prevented me from investing in them.
        Despite the somewhat erratic start of the first few poems, the collection becomes fascinating once we are introduced to the workers that inhabit the world of The Book of Jobs. This workforce includes locksmiths, waiters, a boiler repairman, a “Professor of Sadness”, bankers, Greek Orthodox priests, George Stephanopolous, “the woman in a ticket booth/who lives in my left ventricle” (22), and more. With this eclectic cast, Maris runs the risk of writing sketches lacking depth. This, however, is not the case: the poems’ speakers interact with, and feel deeply for, these many workers. Their interactions reveal a desire to find meaning in day-to-day encounters. For instance, in “The Locksmith”, after the speaker suspects that her home has been burglarized, she finds solace in the man who helps unlock her door: “Locksmiths may make paltry livings next to bankers/ but here was a locksmith ready to display our destiny, /yanking off a doorknob so we could see our lives (15).
        As the book continues, certain images and themes build up, taking on greater weight. We see, for instance, the reoccurring imagery of cardiac arrhythmia in pieces like “Greek Funeral” where the speaker says, “My arrhythmia is bad today” (36). The image is further developed in the poem “The Münchausen Lady”:

        I have never claimed a false illness
        But 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 (34).

Indeed, an awareness of the fragility of life and a fear of sudden death seem to haunt the final poems of Maris’s book. In “Crossing Tremont”, the speaker sees “a somersaulting man/ above a hood just feet away” (46) as she is crossing a New York street. This absurd image is coupled by the more profound realization that the she has witnessed the death of a human being. It is in poems like this and the previously mentioned poems where Maris shows how death and loss can linger around any street corner.
        When I finished reading the collection, however, I was left wondering what these darker musings have to do with the central theme of jobs. For Maris, the word ‘job’ seems to take on broader meanings, encompassing parenthood, the building of relationships, and self-realization. A job is, then, not only a profession but something that determines who we are. By focusing then on the theme of death at the end, one can argue that an occupation can be viewed as the way we spend our life – in the sense of using it up.
        Finally, we see workers whose job it is to usher us onward to death’s door. It is therefore fitting that the last “job” in the collection is that of the eerily grinning boatman who evokes, it would seem, the image of Charon: “I can see him and then I can’t/ and then I can and, when I can, I see the merry man,/ the merry man is really just the ferryman” (47).

Greg Santos is a poet from Montreal, currently residing in New Haven, Connecticut. He has written reviews for Concordia University's The Link and is also a contributing reviewer for PoetryReviews.ca, a site dedicated to reviewing poetry books by Canadian authors. His work has been featured in online and print publications, and is forthcoming in The Gloaming. For more about Greg, visit his website (gregsantos.mosaicglobe.com)

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761