A Working Girl Can't Win Analysis
by Deborah Garrison

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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...

(The entire section is 2,254 words.)