Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Sandy Pool's Radiant Lyre

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Sandy Pool's Radiant Lyre

Tonight at 7pm, finalists for the 2013 Trillium Book Awards will be reading from their nominated works at the Toronto Reference Library (789 Yonge Street). One of the evening’s readers is Sandy Pool, author of the wonderful— albeit terrifying— Undark: An Oratorio, nominated in the category of English-language poetry.

The ostensible subject matter of Undark is the history of radium-dial painters in the United States and Canada during the first half of the twentieth century. In a prefatory note to her collection, Pool explains how Austrian-born Dr. Sabin Von Sochocky invented glow-in-the-dark paint to be used in “watch dials for soldiers and civilians.” In turn, an exclusively-female workforce, known as Radium Women (“between the ages of eleven and forty five”), used fine brushes to mass-produce the watch-dials:

This we know:
dim rooms, bodies


bright as slogans. Fingers pressing
onto, out of. It's simple. We paint


because the money's good. Because
we serve our soldiers any way


we can. We arrive home
after the nightshift, eyes eaten


by intimate details. How we
illuminate everything. . .

Pool’s poetry draws on the competing labor, medical, legal, and commercial histories of radium painting. In doing so, she elegizes those female workers who suffered “necrosis of the jaw, severe anemia, intense arthritic-like pains, and spontaneous bone fractures of the arms and legs”— the effects of ill-conceived work conditions and practices. For example, the women “kept their brush points sharp by ‘pointing’ the tips of the brushes with their lips.” Equally important, Pool’s poetry turns a critical eye on the ugly and violent material underbelly of Modernity’s commitment to the gendered terms of invention and progress. That commitment enabled doctors to dismiss the Radium Women’s ailments as symptoms of syphilis and to pathologize the women as sexual deviants (“They will accuse you / of venereal disease, force words / into mouths, like wounds”); and it's that same commitment that enabled radium painting to continue well into the 1950s.

But the subject matter of Undark— however compelling (and it is!)— is not nearly as significant as the formal and moral manner in which Sandy Pool treats it. First, Undark is subtitled “an oratorio.” According to the OED, an oratorio refers to “a large-scale, usually narrative musical work for orchestra and voices.” But an oratorio also refers to “a musical effect produced by many voices or noises sounding together.” Pool successfully approximates both senses of the term: she punctuates the linear progress of the story— from the discovery of Radium to court room trials— with moments of lyric excess and ecstasis. The story depends on representation and transparency (i.e., visual), while the lyric breaks depend on the dialectic of noise and silence (i.e., audio). The former exists in time, the latter out of time. Second, by suggesting that Pool takes a moral approach I mean two things: she doesn’t present Undark as literal or symbolic reparation: “nothing ends,” as Pool puts it; and she has composed an elegy that refuses the false promise of “solace”: “I’m sorry. There will be no // settlement. No solace / for your bones.”

But there is also “no end” or “solace” for Pool, who returns from the historical archive with as many questions as answers and as much forgetting as remembering:

You women are driving me mad
with your eyes pointing at everything.

I’m sorry I have nothing to say,
Please repeat the question.

And, believe it or not, I haven’t gotten to some of what’s best about Undark. Notably, there is Pool’s large, trans-historical cast of characters or “voices,” including the Radium Women and Sabin, as well as Nox (a stand-in for Marie Curie), Sappho, Undark (“a propaganda radio personality”), Hatschepsut (“fifth pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty of Ancient Egypt”), and a Chorus described as “a sea of light.” That list should tell you just how far removed Pool’s work is from the discursive controls of the historical monograph. Pool also uses the visual organization of the page and other formal choices (e.g., prose poem, couplet, verse-paragraph, syntactic interruptions) to cue the arrival and departure of voices. The movement from one voice to another generates the book’s rhythmic integrity: for example, the fragments of Sapphic longing abut with (my favorite) Undark’s comic and pernicious advertising rhetoric:

Next time you fumble for a switch, bark
your shins on furniture, wonder vainly what time it is
because of the dark— remember Undark.
Today, thanks to constant laboratory work
everyone can benefit from this
most unusual element.

Equally impressive is that the book’s conceit really does back Pool into a metaphoric corner limited to light and dark, and yet she repeatedly punches her way out with seeming ease: in New Jersey, “all the necks of streetlamps bow like swans”; on Lesbos, Sappho plays a “radiant lyre”; in the factory, the women light up like “a constellation. . . Workbenches / brilliant as celestial maps. The legion / of the doomed waiting to die. . . .”

Finally, what I love most about Undark is that the poetry doubles as a performance score. The tradition of Poets’ Theatre, which began in the 1950s (in New York, San Francisco, and Cambridge), is experiencing something of a revival these days. As such, Undark: An Oratorio is timely and thrilling— with so much potential for adaptation to the stage. In her biographical note, Pool describes herself as a “multi-disciplinary artist.” Let’s hope she’s true to her word, and that the book publication of Undark is only the beginning for these Radium Women— after all, to quote Pool, “nothing ends.”

Check out this link to learn more.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Alessandro Porco

Alessandro Porco is the author of two collections of poetry, Augustine in Carthage (2008) and The Jill Kelly Poems (2005), both published by ECW Press, and the editor of Population Me: Essays on David McGimpsey.

Go to Alessandro Porco’s Author Page