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Review of Arlitia Jones’s The Bandsaw Riots
In Anchorage in January, concerns are local: how much daylight (four hours and twenty six minutes) today, what pet owners can look forward to now (new insurance policies), and which (not whether) pipes will burst tonight. Alaskan poet Arlitia Jones begins her first collection of poetry, The Bandsaw Riots, winner of the 2001 Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize, by prying behind expected notions of life in the last frontier to reveal the reality:
Morning is a black wing flaring
at a window feathered with ice
through which there’s nothing
to be seen but Anchorage
hunkered under halogen lamps.
Jones can be hauntingly lyrical at times, as in the fourth of “Five Haiku for Winter Solstice”: “Longest night pivots / like a girl deciding she / will not go that way.” But this book is not about romanticizing life in the north; Jones returns repeatedly in her poems to the Anchorage she knows.
Specifically, Jones brings her readers into the world of the meat packing plant she’s grown up in. Even her personification of Winter in “Discontent” relies on the images of a job she’s worked since childhood:
[...] The cold
is a heavy load and all he has
to show is a sore back
from hauling each day
in and out of the freezer
In the narrative poems of work in the plant, her images are less detached, more immediate: the hard plastic of the blade guard, raw meat dripping blood, hands scarred from near-misses on the bandsaw. Failure to pay attention while working with the meat has a price: “One nick and his fingers would flip / like dice tossed on the stainless tray.”
But the images of Anchorage, of Winter, of the meat packing plant, however honest, are only the setting for the real tension in the book. Jones asks without resolving questions of what it means to be a daughter to parents who suffered to give their children a better life, to be educated but to continue to work in the same meat packing job, to be indebted to a mother and a father and want more, to have achieved less than her dream, to be a woman in a man’s world.
In “Winter Night on the Yentna River,” she recognizes the power and rarity of her father’s attention to her:
[...] On this
everything hinges: that it is winter and we are here
in this wilderness where other men bring their sons.
That you are a father unlike other fathers and I am your child-
a daughter luckier than most-and by this I mean
in a world that deems the smaller share for the girl
and the hero’s portion for the male, you taught me
even what sons are given is not enough.
As if in answer, or, as it comes earlier in the book, perhaps participating the frustrating realization that there is never enough, “Butcher’s Daughter” highlights the static life she and her father live:
Neither of us picked this
as a life’s work and yet we’re here
most of our lives and the goddamned
saw runs all day, every day
Despite her father’s work to give her an education, despite her own work, despite the fact that she can recite exactly what that education cost (“One caribou = two collections of poems” and “Moose, by far the bigger animals, were windfall: / two hardbound anthologies and all of Rich’s prose”), Jones seems uncertain that she’s achieved the “better life” kids are supposed to have when their parents sacrifice for their good.
Her coming to terms with her life and education, if it happens at all, happens finally when she examines her relationship with her mother. In “Radical,” Jones appears to reconcile her place in the meat packing plant with her role as a woman. She reaches an understanding with her mother: “that the daughter will carry on, / finish what the mother leaves undone.” From here, Jones casts her eye wider, understands something of her place in relation to other women:
I know I’m worth the men.
What I think of are the women,
the books I read, and the animals I eat-I hope
I’m worthy of them.
The conclusion of this poem is an unsurprising inner resolve: “I know who’s daughter I am, and the woman I’m determined to be.” The sentiments in “Radical” come almost too easily, are almost too expected. What else is a feminist woman going to say? “The Mother Tongue,” which follows hard on the heels of “Radical,” comes as a relief, picking away at that calm resolve to show the anger Jones harbors against her mother, the less than perfect relationship:
. . . Oh Christ, I roll my eyes back
at you, and proclaim
with your gift of a marked tongue that holds its peace and
flings its hell:
Only a bitch can raise a bitch. My mother’s done it well.
Evidently her calm acceptance of her place in the world of women comes with its own price, and in a book that avoids almost any reference to beautiful mountains or immense glaciers in favor of descriptions of how to saw a moose in half, the sparks of anger against women are a second relief, another sign of original perception.
If Jones risks falling short anywhere in her poetry, its in her more feminist poems. The story of a young woman becoming disenchanted with the place women have in the world and discovering older female models is, frankly, expected. Jones accepts this role easily, too easily. She openly acknowledges her debt to Adrienne Rich, Linda McCarriston, and Mary Harris Jones, a late nineteenth century, early twentieth century activist for worker’s rights. Although she acknowledges “there is more, there is / always more,” Jones has too few sparking poems like “The Mother Tongue” that directly surface the question of what “more” she refers to.
In a book otherwise linked by unresolved tensions-what debt does she owe her parents for her education? what does she owe herself? why do parents sacrifice for their children? what would it mean to have a “better” life? is her life “better” already-more moments of unquieted outrage and anger pointed in unexpected directions would add to her already complex narrative. This is a book in which “the bandsaw riots”-angry, relentless “like a wasp gone berserk in a jar.” Although Jones’s sense of entrapment in life, in Alaska, underlies many of her poems, the moments when she riots against it are fewer than might be expected. But they are worth waiting for, the moments when she speaks without layering her voice behind other guises:
I’ve come for one case
and beat at the ice-bound mess like a crazy woman
until the box comes loose and my hands
go numb . . .
These moments are Jones at her best, stripping away all but the hard truth:
And I’m not Yeats.
Just a woman hating her job,
freezing her ass off in a meat locker,
a woman who found books early in life
Jones lives in a state where winter rules for nine months out of the year, and her strongest poems are the ones that reveal life exactly as she sees it, without attempts to make it fancy or overly wrought. As a first book of poetry, her struggle to place herself both in her immediate situation and in her historical position is clear. And perhaps one of the reasons her strongest poems are her most straightforward is that these poems, which cut to the heart of things, don’t attempt to resolve the tensions she feels. She writes, then, without a plastic guard on the blade, risking scarred knuckles. She moves relentlessly through her book, and when the blade cuts, it cuts deep, exposing bones under the flesh of what we might think it means to live in Alaska.
Bear Star Press
2001 Dorothy Brunsman Prize Winner
Paper, 63 pages