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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Book Review: Wolfgang Carstens (poems) & Janne Karlsson (illustrations) RENTED MULE. NightBallet Press, Elyria Ohio, 2015 (38 pages).

In this latest collaboration between the Canadian poet Wolfgang Carstens and the Swedish artist Janne Karlsson, the ambitious duo use Carstens' recent work experiences to satirise the world of low-paid, low status retail jobs which have mushroomed throughout the Western world in the last 30 years as a result of globalisation and the gutting of our manufacturing heartlands. The writing is characteristically first person from Carstens’ perspective and is highly accessible. Karlsson’s weird minimalistic illustrations wonderfully capture Carstens’ quirky ideas.

The opening poem in the chapbook ‘i’ve been self-employed for over two decades’ quickly establishes the context for the reader. To help support his family the speaker Carstens, cuts his hair, shaves his beard and gets “a real job” at MegaMart, a pseudonym for one of the many superstores like WalMart that now inhabit our neighbourhoods. In Karlsson’s accompanied illustration, Carstens stands in a state of shock surrounded by his family. His wife lovingly adjusts his tie and his kids snigger in bemusement at seeing their father in a suit. Most of the 20 poems and 15 illustrations which follow mockingly focus on the demoralising and humiliating effect the work at MegaMart has on Carstens.

What distinguishes Carstens writing from most contemporary poets, is that he does not wallow in a fog of perpetual despair, but over a series of books, he has carefully crafted his own brand of wry humour.  Much of the humour in the collection is anecdotal in form and stems from a variety of work place incidents. Carstens employs every tool in his poetic kit to reinforce his ideas and to prod and to sometimes wallop our funny bones. The types and forms of humour he uses varies from poem to poem. The humour is largely situational and often the poems weave towards an acerbic punch-line. The low-status and pay of the job, the nature of the retail trade, the quirky demands of his customers and the eccentricities of his fellow workers all become targets of Carstens’ venomous pen.

In a recent conversation, Carstens says that his move into humour was inspired by some of the most staunch stalwarts of his Epic Rites Press venture, "It wasn't until I started working with Karlsson that I started to really explore my strength at humour. I have always been the guy who puts everyone in stitches, who always has a quick sarcastic response, but it was Karlsson who kept pushing me to write funny poems. At some point I compromised and merged my seriousness with humour. Saying that, I can say that John Yamrus has taught me many things, like getting the author involved in the poem, and, to a degree, (along with my friendship with Rob Plath) in learning what not to say, but with humour, or better, the choice to work with humour, I credit to Karlsson." Carstens concludes, "In thinking about it, my humour really took root in FACTORY REJECT and my influence was the work of Henry Denander, my favourite poet."

In the poem ‘I think’ from which the title RENTED MULE emerges, Carstens uses irony to express the exploitive way he views his status as an employee at MegaMart. He complains to a fellow worker that his name tag has been spelt wrong. He caustically adds, “it should say/ rented mule.” In ‘is there’ a customer returns a fan because his wife “doesn’t think/ six inches/ is big enough.” In a characteristic deadpan, sexual innuendo Carsten replies, “they never/do// they never/ fucking/do.” In ‘is this net’ his wife examines his pay stub and asks whether the amount is net or gross. In a mordant pun he replies, “i work/ at MegaMart,// it’s all/ gross.” In ‘i need’ a customer enters the store and wants a replacement light bulb for his stove, probably from the 1950s. In a light-hearted quip, Carstens tells him, “I think/ we should start/ in electrical// because/ clearly we need/ to build/ a time machine.”

In some of the stronger poems, Carstens makes more significant social or political statements. In ‘everyone’ most of the staff at MegaMart hates their job & frequently talk about revolution, of walking out “if things don’t change/ around here.” Carstens satirical points out the gulf between the workers’ threatening words and their eventual inaction and how “nothing/ ever changes.” Karlsson’s sketch of middle class workers linked together by a chain around their necks hyperbolically reinforces the idea that they are trapped and powerless, mere  slaves to the system.

Another powerful poem ‘how to tie a half-Windsor knot’ is a parody of an instruction manual on how to hang yourself. The grim, black humoured poem provides us with a surprise ending which likens the work at MegaMart with dangling from the end of a rope:

carefully tighten knot
with both hands

stand on a chair
throw wide end
over ceiling beam
and fasten securely.

kick away chair
and dangle
forty to sixty
hours per week.

Perhaps the best poem is the last in the collection entitled ‘some men.’ Through juxtaposition, Carstens reflects on how some men devote “their entire lives” to “creating great works of art” or “contemplating/ the fundamental questions/ of existence, ” whereas he has squandered his life at MegaMart “doing unimportant things/ for unimportant people/ that will never be remembered.” Ironically, when he dies, he wishes to be buried with his name tag on a hill overlooking his former employer MegaMart. Karlsson’s illustration shows us a faceless MegaMart building in a lifeless field. Carstens’ headstone reads: “over worked, under paid, and, as always fifteen minutes early.”

RENTED MULE is a tight and original collection. The chapbook is printed on textured, pale of grey paper and is beautiful to hold. Purchase the book here: