A review of An ABC of Belly Work by Peter Richardson
Published on October 1, 2003
An ABC of Belly Work
Peter Richardson, who is also given to formal neatness, opens The ABC of Belly Work
with a poem about his job as an airport cargo handler, the belly being the hold of the plane. Naturally the title poem is filled with lists, a veritable cargo manifest. Perhaps his job shifting objects around has encouraged his use of vivid verbs: they jostle through the collection. Most notable are the verbs in “Coracle,” a poem about the birth of a child. The woman in labour is the “hide boat in a gale” and the assisting imminent father is a deckhand. The boat comes through in this joyous poem but only after some slithering and blatting of the child and “reswabbing” of the mother. He also has a very good poem in which the narrator distracts himself from a vasectomy by describing the intricacies of cargo handling to the physician. At the end, the patient is left holding a “wing-shaped bandaid” in place. The other extreme in this wide-ranging book is the powerful, graphic (but not exploitive) “At Hôtel-Dieu,” a poem about the suicide of a stepson. The poet seems to have reached a point in middle life when he feels compelled to cast a retrospective eye. Mostly he avoids sentimentality in doing so. A fine example of this kind of poem is “Ten Week Shiatsu Affair,” about a brief involvement with what When Harry Met Sally
called a “transitional person.” Tangerine oil massages from a madcap woman “who played the banjo, smoked DuMauriers and wore a head-scarf” loosen up the narrator’s shoulders, which were cramped by the trauma of his ex-wife’s affair with “a factory equipment evaluator.”
Richardson does not limit himself to the personal. He can write with chilling accuracy about a damselfly eating a deerfly or about the life of “An Imperial Aide (432 A. D.).” The book has some filler near the end, like a tedious poem reworking an anecdote about Deputy Sanchez and Sheriff Hidalgo from a Cormac McCarthy novel. And the “Letter to Our Psychic Mr. Fixit” is an exceedingly long missive to a eccentric handyman who reads Ellery Queen, Madam Blavatsky, Gurdjieff, and Nostradamus while coping with a broken heart. The poem has one very amusing detail: the mystic Gurdjieff supported himself as a student by selling sparrows painted yellow as canaries. The irony at the expense of this eccentric is long and forced. But most of Richardson’s book carries valuable cargo. mRb
Bert Almon lives in Edmonton, Alberta. Retired from teaching, he follows the careers of his former students.