Michael Tolkien

A Better Life. (The Bay Press, Ryton)

Publ in Thumbscrew, Autumn 1998


     This first collection pamphlet, partly featured in Thumbscrew 6, targets with new-world individualism the taboos and protocols of an American Jewish diaspora and its neuroses and expectations. Garlitz's tone is predominantly needling but she looks you straight in the eye, and there's a coherent imaginative 'world', qualities of maturer Anglo-American poets like Kazantzis and Lasdun. My quarrels are with parts that call into question the proportion of craft to 'creativity' or whether mere self-expression becomes a kind of cul-de-sac.

    There is dry humour in 'Fünf', a snores-and-all encounter with adultery that tries not to be conscience-stricken in recalling how the furtive growth of sexual awareness has been doused by religious prescriptions. The title poem, too, dramatises without the elbowing of poems about family ceremonies, the story of an earlier, more pathetic victim of this conflict. The girl is perplexed by smatterings of old lingo and customs in new surroundings after an arranged marriage

(' ...under the chuppah/veiled and carefully guided,/ as if I were capable/ of bolting...') Nicely understated marital annihilation. Restrained detail and tight form match her confusions and leave us to sense the illusion of 'a better life.' But even here abstractions about the two men in her life intrude, adding nothing to how she dreams about being jostled by her father and scraping her skin only to wake and

              feel my husbands's fingers

              pushing up my night gown.   

    Discursiveness also blurs the focus of 'The Peacocks of Temple Sinai, Florida.' Images of bagel-and-matzoh-cadging peacocks with their evocative colourings and of exiles collecting their grandchildren only interweave in a finale that speaks for itself after loosely-phrased comments on 'muted memories' and exile clichés like: ' the years of hostile sleet and biting wind.' A reverse process mars the sonnet portentously entitled 'The Writer's Beginning'. Concentrated description of a Bronx pharmacy in winter declines into thoughts of what it must have been like, and ends in saccharine pleonasm:

               saw later this was where it all began:

              what followed was a wish to have again.

    Licensed by a 'confessional' tradition that indulges centrifugal significances, the 'I' of the poems oscillates between dramatised and 'propria' persona. Hence the tendency to caricature relatives for their significances and to conjure up situations for moody disaffection. 'Werd Ich Donnern Hören Die See' (the sea's remorseless pounding) feels like someone writing about being stranded in a dockland, determined to be depressed:

'I have to wipe the clothesline/ to get rid of the residue from the docks,/ the shit brown sea.'( A phrase tactically repeated) ' At night, the clock's red numbers/ accuse me, remind me harshly/ how much time is left..' ( O for a moratorium on personified clocks !) Silence in a noise-ridden neighbourhood weighs her down 'like the spill of gas from the docks'. Obscure! Without believable monologue the monotony is not in the scene but in writing that strains after authenticity.

    The authorial presence can also be prosaic. In 'Touring Birkenau' rhetorical shilly-shallying about her companion marginalises hints of persisting postwar squalor and neglect:

               I think, she's learned nothing about Poland...

          (...)I get angry and talk about memorials

               while she says cramped lodgings are remembered longer than massacres

          (...)....................I think, no,

               she's learned much more than I have.

    Shopping lists of examples and statistics are meant to convey exasperation in 'Turning Out' and 'My Mother and My Life as a Woman'. Manifestos about parental fantasies over dangerous liberation, and their interference in a life so utterly lurid or mundane perhaps we should infer irony at the expense of an overstated cause. Part of what's called 'the life my father feared' reads:

              I dress in black, draw pentagrams on the floor

              to find my lucky lottery numbers,

              go to Rocky Horror with teenagers

              and chase the unsuitable, always chase

              anything normal away, attract the screwed up

              who give only ulcers or VD....

In contrast the opening is judiciously sarcastic about the overprotected model housewife and mother, one section in four pages where detail coalesces into a paradigm of domestic horror and relinquishes quasi-adolescent ingenuity. The monologues of 'The Grey Budgerigar' (which might make you laugh if you don't want it to stop being such a know-all) and 'My Parents Wanted Me to Be a Barbie Doll' are in similar anti-establishment vein. The sloppy form, lashings of corny detail and unmitigated pique make this feel like workshop (or workout ?) drafting.

    Garlitz's genuine satire is dispassionate and the tensions of the observer generate its momentum. 'Security' suggests a contemporary, dehumanising obsession through a superstore assistant's ambiguous fascination for an on-site detective whose every movement expresses distrust and vigilance. He initials her dress allowance ' slowly, like you're carving/ your name on a tree.' As he strip-searches her she's reminded of a joke about a little girl,

              ...told by her mother to go buy milk

              at the Safeway;

              she laughs and laughs

              and when her mother asks why

              she answers: 'There is no safe way.'


Ivy Garlitz