Thursday, October 20, 2011

She Slumps There Shredding Documents

I've been enjoying the blog and poems of Kristin Berkey-Abbott for some time now, and today I'll tell you a bit about her chapbook I Stand Here Shredding Documents. The title alludes to a famous Tillie Olsen short story, "I Stand Here Ironing," from her collection Tell Me a Riddle.

Berkey-Abbott's poetry chapbook handles themes and concerns similar to Olsen's--work life, the working person; women and their work lives, often domestic, or balancing domestic labors with other labors; women in family life. I Stand Here Shredding Documents is also a gentle, humorous, and pithy critique of contemporary life, particularly 20th- and 21st-century woman's place in it.

The opening poem, for example, notes the irony of wildly expensive kitchen remodeling projects and television cooking shows in "a culture that doesn't cook." In another, a fashion design student doesn't think she needs to know how to sew. What's important is the runway, the logo, the sexy slit. "Besides, [she's] a little afraid / of the sewing machine."

And of course today's working woman has left "her ancestors' farms" behind for the new crop of gas-guzzlers on their way to offices:

She looks across the lanes of cars,
row after row of metal husks,
pod after pod with precisely one person
per car, lying fertile,
waiting to blossom in the workplace.

Berkey-Abbott revisits myth and fairy tale to look at culture and her personal dilemmas, and also explores escape via "Alternate Career Path #1" ("chief bread baker / to the Abbess) and "Alternate Career Path #2 ("dessert chef / to the homeless").  I like her imaginary professions a lot--body and spirit nurtured and nurturing in both! She also gives herself and her readers the comic relief any of us might need after a long and tedious workday or day spent in "Meeting Hell," also a slightly dismembered sonnet!

I love her use of the mythological character of Penelope (here at her loom, as painted by Leandro Bassano), patiently weaving and unweaving her tapestry as she waits for her husband to come home, now displaced to the workplace as "Penelope in the Office Cubicle," where she makes and dismantles a work chart, makes and pours out coffee, and endlessly revises departmental objectives. What comes home is the meaninglessness of our modern work lives.

That is present in the title poem, too, which ends:

I am a woman of file cabinets
and endless meetings of infinite boredom.
I stand at the shredder,
my daily friend, and think of work
that is never finished.

But there's a sense in the book as a whole that some of the unfinished work is yet to come, after the regular workday, and isn't boring, and is meaningful, and it's here, woven into poems.


Sandy Longhorn said...

Wahoo. Great review, Kathleen.

Love Kristin's work and this book in particular.

Kathleen said...

Thanks, Sandy! I've been reading the poems over time, and then re-read the book as a whole, so it was time to write about it.

Maureen said...

Looking forward to picking up her work.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott said...

Thank you so much for this generous review!

Hannah Stephenson said...

What a fantastic review.....I like how you focused on what you enjoyed. It makes me want to read Kristin's book!!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed this, Kathleen. I'll be checking out her blog.