Jen Fitzgerald’sThe Art of Work is a collection that encompasses collaboration, shared experience, and common struggle. Opening with a literal “Glossary of Terms,” this is a book of definitions, or rather, the act of redefining terms. Fitzgerald’s book not only calls the concept of ownership into question, she also addresses the entities that get to create and control and own language. As I read and reread this work, I was asked to consider who controls definition and meaning and the ways meaning unfolds based on one’s position of power.
Fitzgerald’s poems carry an important weight. They both salute and expose the idea of union and of unions. They are a merging, melding, coming together of unity and a consequence and privilege of the entity of the union. The characters in these poems are products of this system and their lifestyles and desires ask us to consider the immense power of a pained collective.
Poems in The Art of Work are often presented in many sections and in varied forms. A strong suit of this collection is its beautifully balanced repetition within each poem and across poems allowing the creation of a strong lyrical space. The nature of this cyclical repetition is that poems return to themselves mimicking the monotony of a human and a product’s life cycle. There is music in highlighting the monotony of this work. The poem “Last Totem of Tradesmanship” begins: “Take hands to aerial knife,/ swipe, shoulder-slice tissue// as though there were/ music behind it,// as though you were/ keeping time.” There is a distinct rhythm of noticing the particular details of sameness and the commonality of basic needs. Music can be found throughout the collection but especially in the short, tight, lyric of “The Singing Polar Bear” poems, where the collective chanting seems to reach its zenith.
In Fitzgerald’s world of obligations, poems dissect how we measure worth. In much of this work, people are presented as commodities that are living hand to mouth, and who through their sickness and survival are attempting to chart their lives, sometimes by trampling one another for mere crumbs. These same characters can’t seem to numb the pain even when they want to and are working for and despite what they have inherited from previous generations. “Work for live for/work/ life living for work/ working life living/ for life work/ a life’s work/ like it’s life// a population/ evicted from history,” Fitzgerald opens in “Blue.” She highlights the human engine, the history of necessity, and a history from which the worker is essentially erased. It is difficult not to question one’s own role in product consumption as a result of experiencing her work. One can’t help but contemplate how they themselves participate in a system that cycles so carelessly through people. “Blue” closes with the following parable: “so far/ we haven’t come/ from this/ yet, so far haven’t we/ how far,/ have we come from this—/ not yet./ haven’t we/ come so far?/ yet,/ we have come from this.” The ramifications of working and of cycling through the structure are grave: the danger of injury is constantly looming, often at the physical, financial, and spiritual expense of the forgotten worker.
In all of the talk of engines and hands and being raised up right by men there is always the question of what happens when our hands inevitably fail us? The gory imagery of this collection does much of the work for this answer. We are surrounded by meat: the perpetual knife cutting and slicing open product for the masses. Excess rules and both bodies and food are dismantled, the metaphor of man as meat is as ever present as the inventory of cutting that anchors this collection in a very real violence. “Return to the smell,/ you can’t get away/ from the slick smell/ of snakes mating/ in your gut,” she so expertly describes the dilemma of the permanence of our actions in the third section of “Here is the Life We’ve Made For You.”
Fitzgerald has masterfully established a place where truth is unforgivable and knowledge as well as pain is passed on from generation to generation. A place undeterred by uncertain futures and where “the Union can’t feed you forever” and where “no one promised to take care of you.” The grace in this work is that in this landscape of skepticism and cynicism there is an astounding amount of heart.