A Working Girl Can’t Win

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

A WORKING GIRL CAN’T WIN: AND OTHER POEMS, Deborah Garrison’s first collection of poetry, offers readers the edgy, witty, self-absorbed voices of young working women of the 1990’s as they examine the contradictions between their expectations for work and love and the actualities which life produces. The speakers of these poems observe office politics and comment wryly on their places in the office pecking order. They look at their lives and see themselves getting older without achieving either promotions or exciting romances (in one poem the speaker laments that she will never sleep with anyone famous). They mourn their strained relationships with their parents and their dull relationships with their husbands.

The accessibility of Garrison’s free verse should not obscure the sound effects and subtle rhymes which give shape to her work. Her short lines and colloquial diction create the illusion of conversation, and internal rhyme and sound effects flicker through much of her work, understated and witty. These poems are not dense; their syntax suggests the structure of daily speech; metaphor and symbol are subdued. Still, when the occasion calls for metaphor, Garrison is ready with appropriate responses. In “Atlantic Wind,” the wind is like a wet dog, “nosing its cloud-pups across/ the sun.” In “November on Her Way,” the speaker thinks of a man she once knew, for whom worry is “a lit fish swimming across/ his face.”

Much of the book’s appeal lies in its timeliness. Its themes and voices seem organic to the lives of women working in cities in the 1990’s, and its feminism and wariness about marriage make it very much a product of its time. Readers may wonder how these poems will sound twenty years in the future and whether their insights will have been overpowered by time.

Sources for Further Study

Kirkus Reviews. LXVI, February 15, 1998, p. 224.

Library Journal. CXXIII, February 15, 1998, p. 145.

New Criterion. XVII, December, 1998, p. 69.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, March 8, 1998, p. 15.

The New Yorker. LXXIV, February 16, 1998, p. 84.

Newsweek. CXXXI, February 23, 1998, p. 68.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, December 22, 1997, p. 55.

Time. CLI, March 30, 1998, p. 68.

Vogue. CLXXXVIII, February, 1998, p. 140.

A Working Girl Can’t Win

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The cover art on this small collection of poems beautifully conveys the tone of the contents. A black-and-white photograph shows two stylish women at a coffee-shop table; they wear black dresses and stockings and clunky jewelry. They may be older than they look—in their mid-thirties, perhaps. They smoke as they read, one a newspaper, the other a book. They slouch fashionably in their chairs, and their carefully made-up faces reflect a studied disengagement. They are the working girls of the title, fashionable, urbane, but tightly wound from the tensions of life in a world that they are still learning. Their working lives often reduce them to the status of copying machines (although their titles may suggest much loftier positions); their romantic lives reflect as many transfers as their offices; their marriages face all the stresses of any marriages in the 1990’s, with the added difficulties of work layered on top.

In the twenty-eight poems of this collection, Deborah Garrison gives a voice to the women who inhabit this world, making a sort of narrative that takes the reader through roughly a year in the life of such women. A frequent voice here is that of a young married woman who is still seeking a resolution for the conflicts she finds between her working life, with its sexy office tensions, and her marriage, already turned dull but probably more trustworthy than the offerings of the office. Another voice seems more likely to be single; this one reflects on her parents and on her friendships with other women as well as on friendships—and romances—with men.

In the table of contents, all the poems are given short summary statements that read a little like subtitles and thus create an additional focus for each poem’s theme. Sometimes that focus is unnecessary. Garrison might have trusted the reader to know that the poem “The Boss” portrays a “kind of love” or that “The Firemen” is a love poem “to nobody in particular.” In other cases, however, the information is useful. In “Superior,” the reader might not guess that the subversive victim of office power plays will keep her mouth shut or that in “Fight Song” there might be an element of triumph in the speaker’s bawdy dismissal of all the irritations of corporate culture. In either case, the summary comments create an ironic suggestion of Victorian sensibility for poems that are anything but Victorian. An edgy irony and mordant wit are the dominant tones of these poems.

That irony is illustrated in the title poem; it is composed of a series of questions that outline the stereotypes and the very real problems of the working girl. “Is this the birth of a pundit/ or a slut?” the opening asks, and then the poem goes on to list a series of other options, almost all of them negative, that rise from the contradictory worlds of womanhood and office work: “Is her worldview equal parts/ yuppie whine and new-age rumor?” “Is she a failed/ anorexic or diet pill faddist . . . ?” “Will her husband talk?/ Does he mind her success?” Finally, the poem’s central question arrives: “does anyone care?” Answer seems to be that even those who were once interested will move on; “only her children will grieve/ at the way she was wronged.” The world of the working girl offers equally unattractive choices between being a “kiss-and-tell bimbo” and a “careerist coquette.”

“Please Fire Me” offers another sample of Garrison’s acid view of office life. It dramatizes the moment when “another alpha male” arrives on the scene; immediately a power struggle ensues between him and the other office alphas, while the women, “the silly little hens,” are powerless to do anything but “clatter back and forth” and “raise/ a titter about the fuss.” The speaker’s distaste for the scene is obvious, but she has few alternatives: “I’ve never been sicker. / Do I have to stare into his eyes/ and sympathize? If I want my job/ I do. Well I think I’m through. . . .” Characteristically, Garrison ends the poem with a surprise: “I’d like to go/ somewhere else entirely,/ and I don’t mean/ Europe.”

Much of the pleasure in these poems stems from Garrison’s acute observations of women’s experience. In “Superior,” for example, Garrison pictures a supervisor who would “wander/ into her office, his eyes flicking over the papers/ on her desk as though it offended him/ to have to interrupt tasks that were being done/ for him. . . .” The woman must put up with the interruption because she knows that he can think only by talking through his ideas, and while she murmurs her agreement, she knows that she...

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