The loves and losses of a woman trying to keep a career and family afloat
The Second Child: Poems. By Deborah Garrison. Random House, 76 pp., $19.95.
By Janice Harayda
On the cover of Deborah Garrison’s A Working Girl Can’t Win there’s an elegant black-and-white photograph by Irving Penn that shows two chic women – both young-ish, reed-thin and smoking — languishing at a café table. You might think they were having brunch in Tribeca or the Meatpacking District until you looked the date of the picture and saw that it appeared in Vogue in 1950, long before those districts became favored addresses for stylish New Yorkers.
That cover is brilliant for reasons that go beyond its use of fashion photography instead of the tasteful watercolors of fruits and vegetables you see more often on poetry books. The two people who appear on it could be archetypes of those most likely to identify with Garrison’s work – urbane, intelligent women who have everything except the level of satisfaction they expected their manicured lives to bring.
Garrion’s second collection, The Second Child, consists of 33 poems about the interection of work and motherhood in an age of large and small anxieties – from fears of another terrorist attack to regrets about missed chances to listen to NPR and serve as a playground monitor. Garrison is a former staff member at the New Yorker who is an editor for Alfred A. Knopf and Pantheon, and the title may be, in part, a slightly self-mocking send-up of a publishing cliché. (Is there a writer so original that he or she has never referred to a book as his or her “child”?) If so, the wordplay is is fair representation of The Second Child – a smart and funny collection that is at times just a little glib.
Some of the lesser poems in this book resemble anecdotes in verse, written on the wing. In “To the Man in a Loden Coat,” the working mother who narrates the poems nearly explodes with frustration at a traveler on an escalator at the Port Authority Bus Terminal whose failure to grasp a law of New York life — “walk on the left,/stand on the right” — may cause her to miss the 5:25. The poem suggests how quickly a competent woman may be undone by bottled-up pressures the moment she leaves the office, but you might get as much from dipping into The Bitch in the House.
The best poems in The Second Child rise much higher. Perhaps the finest is a meditation on Sept. 11, “September Poem.” After the terrorist attacks, the working mother wants to have another child, but there’s a problem:
The idea of sex a further horror:
To take pleasure in a collision
Of bodies was vile, self-centered, too lush.
In these lines and others, Garrison suggests how public tragedy can impinge on the most joyous and private of acts. And a shadow remains after she and her husband have created a new life
Which might in any case
end in towering sorrow.
Throughout The Second Child, Garrison works in varied meters, rhymed and unrhymed, and forms that include the sonnet and the sestina. Her city poem “Goodbye, New York” has the anapestic bounce of a Cole Porter-ish Broadway show tune:
You were the pickles, you were the jar
You were the prizefight we watched in a bar
It ends with a final salute to:
my skyline, my byline, my buzzer and door
now you’re the dream we lived before
This kind of sentiment is entertaining, if not deep, despite subtleties such as the lack of punctuation after “before” – the last word of the poem – suggesting a continuing enjambment with the city. And if some of it seems too easy, the same quality could make The Second Child ideal for a working mother who wonders if “too easy” will ever be easy enough.
Best Line: All of “September Poem,” which begins: “Now can I say?/ On that blackest day …”
Worst Line: Part of a description of childbirth in “Birth Day Pun”: “A smoldering butt!/ That’s how it is:” That may be “how it is,” but it makes the woman giving birth sound like a pork butt.
Reading Group Guide: A reading group guide to The Second Child appears in the March 12 post directly below this one and is archived in the “Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides” category.
Published: February 2007 www.randomhouse.com
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.