A REVIEW OF GARTH MARTENS'S
PROLOGUE FOR THE AGE OF CONSEQUENCE
BY MATTHEW HALSE
The Rusty Toque | Reviews | Poetry | Issue 7 | November 30, 2014
A certain stamina is required in reading Garth Martens’s Prologue for the Age of Consequence, which is not to say that reading Prologue is hard-going, but between the grit and the squalor and the tedium of labour you begin to feel the ache of a long day’s work. The endless drizzle and mud don’t help, neither do the shouting foreman eager to make tight deadlines. Crass jokes and the company of (paid) women might get you through, sure, but Martens’s work is an exploration of sheer resolve, of just-barely-making-it through to tomorrow.
Romanticizing construction work cannot be easy, notably for the readership of contemporary poetry. The jolting past-tense of Prologue’s opening line—“Forget where you were going”—seemingly reminds us that we are out of our natural element: “The Whitemud, the Yellowhead, air warping from the cranked-down window through the truck, lead you out of the tourist district, past tall townhouses, their vinyl yellows, greens, blues, stacked as if to keep you out.” In fact, Prologue seems to pivot on a divide between us and the “men who have sailed every fjord or hunted every animal for little pay” which reinforces our being visitors to this terrain removed from daily comforts. We are, on every page, removed from ourselves, a situation mitigated only by Martens’s careful explanation of the lives of these men couched in epic and affective language: “It is dark when you reach the excavation and you don’t know if the road starts or ends here. If it’s abutment, chimera, hole.” It is the distance between ‘excavation’ and ‘chimera’ that makes this collection so paradoxically resonant and problematic: two worlds of differing values collide with surprising intensity. This is not to pit poetic reader against construction worker—which can easily coexist in and as the same person—but a calloused world of sweat and grime made only apprehensible through the distance metaphor provides. Martens refuses to render the harshness of this constructed/construction world without recourse to the mythic.
The sweep of Prologue is threefold: the environments of labour span high-rise construction sites to the remotest of cabins, the characters from diffident apprentices to irritable bosses, and the poetry itself from prose to short couplets. Prologue, however, recurrently follows Johnny Lightening, a foreman who runs easily derailed safety meetings (“Maybe you heard, me and Safety Sean got into a bit of a headbanger today.... My first thought is, I’m gonna eat this cocksucker alive”), hollers at lazy roofers (“riddling obscenities from the ground—Move your shit!”), and seems to give more of himself to stray dogs than the men with whom he shares the totality of his time. Johnny is a harbinger of sorts, a warning to both the young apprentices and we the readers alike, signaling the fates of those who never abandon the road up north, those who continue to build skyward only to be forgotten; this is emphasized in a lengthy poem written from the perspective of an apprentice, who alone bears witness to Johnny’s exhaustion and vulnerability. The apprentice says, “I figured he got old when he slept in. He punted / around before dawn usually, but one time he / gaped at the stair railing. I’m sore al over—he swayed / drowsily at the knees—stuck in my joints like a tool left in the rain.” Such is Martens’s strongest and most passionate theme in Prologue: we see the cycle from young to old, from apprentice to foreman, from father to son as a form of tragic grandeur. Martens leaves no instruction as to how we ought to feel about this cycle; there is only the strange sense that this is both how it is and how it will be. Bear in mind through my ensuring problematization of Prologue that myth and metaphor lend potential beauty and assuagement to the bleakest of existences.
Johnny’s final appearance is his undoing as “He tried to get it right, or at least tried to falsify rightness,” only to realize the impossibility of satisfaction: “Johnny Lightning and the End of the World”—Martens’s best poem, I think—accounts for a (real? dreamed?) fire which
Braided the entire room.
I’m unsure if the fire engulfing Johnny and his construction world implies the consequence of his sequestered existence, or is a marker of the precarity of his employment. Both are, to a certain extent, applicable. What is certain, however, is that “Johnny’s precinct” is easily brought down, felled—whether accidentally, or fantastically, or purposefully—by those paid to build it up. There is a subtle warning in such catastrophe: not simply the collapsibility of worlds but of personal erasure. Without that which is built, what trace remains of Johnny?
Herein lies the problematic nature of Martens’s overarching project: the distance created through ambiguity or language or occasional ambivalence divides the unfamiliar reader from the very subjects he seeks to bring to the forefront of our collective imagination. This is not to critique his epic, sweeping narrative as a style, but instead to question the ways in which these characters are merely appropriated for exhibition within that style. The romantic air Martens lends his eclectic cast is not their own, for when they do speak, the stark beauty of their lives fades in favour of racist or violent banalities. We learn that “Construction ain’t fun anymore. You can’t put girls in bikinis on the wall,” for example, or that Johnny “cursed on the horn if some prima donna didn’t gear / at the green or tailgated if a Chink braked at the merge.” These all too recurrent tidbits are not only at odds with the poetic, grand tone of Martens writing, but exist in disjunct with how we are asked to understand these lives to be: Johnny-as-Johnny fails to live up to the mythos through which he is narrated. This is not to side with one representation of high-rise construction or the other, but to claim that Martens actively changes his characters when they themselves are not given the capacity to speak. If implicit within Prologue’s reach is a desire to make palpable a world unseen by poetry (and its readers, like me), then the shift Martens so adamantly creates becomes vastly unfair to the subjects for whom he writes in service of: both character and reader alike. In asking us to abandon our paths—to forget our destination, as the opening line has it—we are, by Martens, aptly opened to new terrain; by failing to give Johnny and his brethren authenticity, that landscape looks remarkably like Martens’s own.
MATTHEW HALSE is a doctoral candidate in Theory and Criticism at Western University.