Book Review

On the surface, the term “service industry” has never seemed all that faithful to the word “industry,” meaning that “service” doesn’t actually call to mind the heavy accoutrements of an actual industry. For me, “service industry” is more something coined out of convenience or categorical expedience. It is a simple invitation allowing people to taste the luxury that comes with not doing while someone else does the doing for them. And what would motivate said invitation? More poignant to Kristin Hatch’s book, what pushes the service employee to carry through with her work where some sense of the necessary is absolutely necessary? We can hope it’s a push. A remunerative push? A personal-cause-to-be-something push, too? And whether server or served, we can think to ourselves, “That person must enjoy pushing.” The hospice worker tending to a dying patient is there, we hope, because he feels some deeper need to help others. The server at the restaurant really actually likes us. She’s so kind to us. She’s happy to be bringing things to us. It is a part of both their natures.

To a degree, I would say Kristin Hatch’s poems in the meatgirl whatever are following this idea of “to serve.” Or more appropriately, the assumption that “necessary” is a part of “to serve.” Like that’s where a lyric honoring the service industry would start. It’s necessary to serve! The book opens with a series of poems dedicated to that service we take most for granted: the restaurant. The speaker works as a server at a restaurant called The Beef or Beef. And it feels like any number of restaurants where people might go to have a Good Time, to enjoy a Happy Hour. In “Meatgirl Training Shift #1,” the plight of the server:

most of the job is mastering the squat.
It’s against policy to sit, but we have to be eye-level.
you can use the edge of the table to help you down, but you get
marked for holding on past that.
your thighs are violin wire.
once in position, let your arms dangle (don’t put them in your lap), they like that best.
open your mouth wide.
your eater should see fur down your throat.

The speaker serves Beef, she deals with guys in The Kitchen, she serves Magix Baskets to a “cologne-boy,” who is about as interesting as you would expect a “cologne-boy” to be. Which is to say that the poems speak from an authentic point of view, and they pull a reader into that world of walk-in freezers and four-top’s.

I have to be honest, though. With an opening like this, I was hoping for a social commentary along the lines of Anna Moschovakis’s “In Search of Wealth” (from her book You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake). But Hatch isn’t really writing a book on the politics of the wage slave. The opening poems register the feeling: “is work like this really worth it”? There is a futility of purpose recorded in these poems. But, as the book progresses, its arc seems more invested in a speaker who is discovering something about herself. What is the joy of discovering your own personal agency? Like the way agency can grasp hold of a person and feel like an entire city has grown in her chest. How can the arc in a book of poems express how someone feels the compellingness of “necessary” even as her life is spent “serving.” The opening poems about working in a restaurant, that surely represent the most concrete grasp of occasion and setting and even sentiment in the book, seem to establish a speaker saying, “Despite feeling exploited, I still feel what I do is necessary.” The poem “The Biggest Thing Is How Everyone Is Sad,” focuses us on this speaker, who she is, why she is, and what preoccupies her doing self.

on the bus it’s just full of sad, faces for pudding.
there was an old couple across on the vertical seats & i kept making
eye contact on accident with the man.
his suit pants had smaller width pinstripes than his suit coat. anyhow,
me too. it’s because when my days end there is no music like in movies
or serial tv.
you think i am joking. but i’m not. i mean, i do kid sometimes. but really,
i am about the music.

Hatch here draws this flimsy distinction between herself and the people around her on the commute. And by flimsy I mean she is noting both the differences and the similarities, and because both exist, there is no concrete sense of whether a reader should take this as an “I am different than others” statement or an “I am like others.” Instead, the statement seems more like, “No matter how I might fancy myself different from the others I watch, I’m probably more the same.”

I would argue that this reach for singularity, this privileging of the self, and whether the speaker sees herself as someone who could or should privilege her position to anyone, is where the book takes its most interesting stand. In fact, it seems to me Hatch looks at the position of herself—her femininity, her attractiveness, her discovering the role of adulthood—and how, as a young woman, she is going to inhabit her roles as objectifications. Kind of the way Patricia Lockwood handles the feminine world via objectifications, but not so sarcastically. Throughout the second half of the book, Hatch poses lyric investigations on how or what any of these objectifications might mean.

This, at least, is my accounting for the significant shift in voice occurring over the course of this book. What starts in the opening poems as fun, snarky takes on the life of a server transforms by the end of the book into a far denser, lyrically poised speaker probing the meaning of Cinderella or Ariel or Snow White in a contemporary world. Here, the opening of “Ariel”:

my tail was more emerald than emerald, softer
& my sisters–

together, we were mightier than motown, we threw
down like sunsets.

our bathing songs got us through the briskest!
our mouths, the perfect houses.

i mean, we all make choices.
it’s just part of the changing.

The same attitude exists in “Ariel” as the earlier poems, however, rather than a direct first-person speaker observing her place in the world around her, now the speaker is somewhere between persona and allegory and personal realization, but realizing her realizations as if she were standing beside the reader looking at her own outstretched arm pointing the direction of her past, and saying, “Hey, reader, I think I just came to a realization about my past.”

I’ve had a hard time reconciling this shift in voice and shift in perspective, and not because a book of poems must maintain a single line of vision throughout. But because the shift in voice is so gradual and seemingly uniform, I can’t help but look into it for some significance. Does the book’s arc propose, first, an expression of “necessary” and the strange will to power “necessary” asks of someone? Does the book layer that with the power a young woman feels when recognizing the full possibility alive in the feminine mystique? Both these points are present, so that I don’t find this reading of the book such a reach that I can’t present it here. However, quite honestly, the shift in voice is enough that I am left questioning whether this is more the concept I want to glue onto the book rather than the book’s expressive root. Wouldn’t it be nice if the poems offered just a little more guidance regarding why Point A Server poems lead to Point B Lyric Take on Young Disney Princesses. Fortunately, this doesn’t detract from the solid, sharp fun each of the poems represents. Only how a reader might bring all these sharp angles together.

About the Reviewer

Kent Shaw's first book, Calenture, was published in 2008. His poems have since appeared in The Believer, Boston Review, Ploughshares, Witness and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor at West Virginia State University.