by Katherine Faigen
On the back of Laurie Saurborn Young’s Industry of Brief Distraction, H.L. Hix compares the book to Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much with Us.” Barbara Ras calls it “Madly inventive and wildly original.” Carrie Fountain says the poems are “Sometimes brutal, always stunning” and “very often funny.”
Before reviewing, I admit that I might not be this book’s best reader. In my effort to assemble meaning, I found myself struggling to tune my ear to Young’s use of image and language.
Industry of Brief Distraction takes poems from Young’s chapbook, Patriot, and intersperses them within a series of “Industry” poems and other politically themed, mostly lyric works. The book’s cover – a black and white photograph of a veiled, but otherwise nude woman set against a colorful highway photo – alerts readers to collage within the poems themselves. Throughout her poems, Young references photographs, films, current events, and popular song lyrics. She often writes in a sequence of unexpected subjects and image shifts.
In “Talking to My Hat” Young begins with, “What could happen if clouds/ undressed themselves at night instead of knocking on our door…” and leaps to, “My dog is blind and most/ stars are as well, so we can get/away with anything.”
Many poems in her Patriot series contain the line “This is America” and exist mostly as juxtaposition of declarations and definitions:
Mastiff eating 2x4s, as a child unafraid I pet you.
The marriage is in the house, he said.
Yet somewhere she is eighteen…
Here, on page thirty-two’s “Patriot,” ideas slip through a changing lineup of subjects and foci. Young moves her reader through medical dictionaries, Wyoming farmland, Ridley Scott films, El Paso, and snippets from Gertrude Stein. At one point in the poem, the speaker, self-aware, asks, “Where is it we are?”
Before reading the book a second time, I revisited Robert Bly’s essay “Looking for Dragon Smoke” where he discusses the poetic leap as “a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again” (1). He connects leaping in epic poems to “Great Mother” mysteries and discusses contemporary poetic leaps as having evolved into an increase of “speed of association” (6).
Reading Industry of Brief Distraction this way, Young’s “Great Mother” is America. By investigating her leaps of association, we find Young’s America to be an unfailingly bleak place, characterized variously throughout the collection in lines such as:
“Line of Thunderstorms on the weather map.”
“Forever men taking a break with grease
Under their nails.”
“Emergency room nurses debating
Glocks versus 22s while my husband cannot
“Guessing a medical term for meaningless”
“Someone always in the process of taking over
With orange beak angled wide…”
“Collarbone broken & then I am pushed
Hard off the boat.”
“Whose child sank in the muddy pond.”
“Missile seeking the same” and “domesticated wolf just along for the ride.”
“Paternal riots,” “Hooves of starving horses.”
There are a few moments of levity interspersed, but an overwhelming cheerlessness weighs heavy throughout these poems. It is often difficult to understand the structure of darkness without seeing it against a light, and comprehending the bigger picture of Young’s intentionally fragmented definitions poses a similar challenge. As Young examines America’s wastefulness, hypocrisies, and mistreatment of its citizens, American becomes a vision of hopelessness.
Young’s diction, too, is intentionally erratic. In “Upon Learning of the World Everlasting” we move between colloquial speech – “Dogs don’t feel this guilty” – and archaic language – “They falleth apart in great haste” “yea verily we cannot contain our celebration.” Throughout her poems, language becomes something unexpected and puzzling. In “Modern Political Thought” such, we encounter such thoughts as “Does not taste the heart chakra’s grass-green” and “Does not know flight is our foot mantra.” In “Collage of my Best Intentions” Young bestows action, taste, and sight to something intangible when her speaker “Paint[s] the air over my eyes/ salt and azure.” In “Abortion” she replaces an abstract concept – “linear blessing” – with a series of seemingly unconnected but concrete visuals: “pink paper umbrella,” “tanked Lobsters” and a “friend who stops calling.”
While I can appreciate the presence of mystery in a poem, for me, the most affecting moments were those in which the image and intention seemed clear. Moving away from the political, Young’s other poems contain a self-defeating and lonely speaker. In “Primary Industries” we are pulled a bit closer to someone who introduces us her great grandparents. She locates us firmly “In the bath” where she recites “…Longfellow’s /Lost youth” and ignores “the new world for this.” At the end of the poem, when “…cicadas / pull of blistered shells & ride out” we can understand their ability to part from their past and the speaker’s inability to part from hers.
Saturnalia Books (2015): $15.00 paperback
Robert Bly’s essay “Looking for Dragon Smoke” can be found in his book Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translation, available from the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Katherine Faigen lives near Boston where she writes, coaches rowing, and teaches at Emerson and Babson Colleges.