Garth Martens: Prologue for the Age of Consequence

By Amy Reiswig, December, 2014

A poet explores the tar sands through the eyes of its workers.

The Alberta tar sands trigger a lot of emotion in the public consciousness, mostly around environmental, economic and political concerns. No one I know would associate the bitumen boom with things like music, beauty or poetry. But in his Governor-General’s-nominated collection Prologue for the Age of Consequence (Anansi, April 2014), Victoria poet Garth Martens gives the rarer view: of the often unseen tradespeople employed in heavy construction, which he has been, on and off, for almost 10 years. It’s not a romanticized vision, but it is revelatory—of crude and complex people who in their strengths, vulnerabilities and particular voices are a source of gritty and even mythic mystery.  

The 32-year-old Martens grew up in northern Alberta and Kelowna, the son of a construction superintendent, so it’s not surprising that he worked in that world himself. What is surprising is what happened when he did. “The poems came almost against my will,” Martens tells me, sipping an also surprising late evening americano at Tre Fantastico. “It’s a particular reality that had an ugliness to it. I felt like I was on a lookout tower, and some of the terrain around me was obscure. I wanted to go there.”

Primarily, the terrain he’s talking about is not the industrial landscape but the workers he laboured with, lived alongside and, as we see in the poetry, listened closely to.

Talking face to face, it’s easy to see how the site’s rough characters (grafted into composites for the book) were initially obscure territory for Martens—a composed, reflective and deliberately-spoken MFA grad and flamenco dancer who seems an unlikely fit with the blunt, raunchy, misogynist, sometimes even racist men he writes about. But in the work and the workers he discovered a realm of particular rhythm that he wanted to capture. “Construction workers are exceptional metaphor-makers,” Martens says, explaining his fascination with the local music of what he calls “the general spasm of dialogue that would occur.” 

Some of the book’s talk is harsh, some hilarious and often viscerally visual. For instance: “Don’t be fuckin owly, the Boss says to me…. there’s a special place in hell for a guy who never gets his shirt dirty, and I’m gonna tear him a new ass.”

If you are put off by profanity, well, you’ll have a problem with this collection. Reflecting the reality of the environment, Martens says it was essential for the sound, the driving principle of his work. “Poetry is a musical document,” he states, and so in delving into the music of this sphere, “there was no word that could not be included. This is the stuff of my life and the lives of so many people. It’s worth rendering.” 

It’s not just the language but the lives that Martens renders—the grim, sometimes destructive daily experience so many face in that job world. No matter our individual opinions, “the tar sands influence the whole country,” Martens notes. “So much of what we do in this country needs people to be doing this kind of work.” And yet, he tells me, “it makes people like the screw at the end of their drill: hard, stunted. Psychologies are warped to fit the work schedule. Everything is sacrificed to feed the machine. It’s not healthy for anyone’s heart.”

And he means and explores that physically and emotionally. For example, after 47 days without a break, “Drywall dust whitens your hairs, the tips of your lashes, the bags in your chest,” your very breath coated with dust but also your spirit. In fact, people mostly keep their inner life, what’s left of it, to themselves. “Keezer wanted to swear/ there were parts of him that could never vanish./ Even when his drill disappeared and his hearing and his rib,/ there were parts of him not given to the job,/ but his throat shut even for mouthing it… a guy like him, pinned/ in his chest like he was.”

Through these men so rooted in their bodies—“stuck in my joints like a tool left in the rain”—and often disconnected from love or even “the soft plain of a woman’s wrist,” Martens addresses, in more ways than one, “the doing and the undoing/ that happened in the veins.” These workers are themselves the foundational stones, if you will, of Alberta’s oil industry—those by and on whom it is built—and Martens delineates their constant shifting between breakage and endurance. He reminds us of the human toll of the oil boom, the people we take for granted.

But larger than just them, with characters who seem titan in their struggle (like one worker who feels “he’d been at this work longer than there’s been cities”), the book deals with what it means to be a person in this world. 

Martens explains that the book features, intentionally, two registers: what he calls the “rural music,” idiosyncratic and loaded with characters, and then a type of diction where, he says, “anything is possible. It kind of flies around up high. One pushes into the mythological and one stays with the tradespeople. It’s sometimes asking a lot of the reader, sometimes more approachable.” And the reader is encouraged to flow on the music, the mysterious, as when the blood of a worker who slips and punctures his aorta on a rod of rebar floods “across acreages, roadways, through the Rockies….averted into dust wherever it passed among the prairies, his bones so cracked with heat their powders became a seminal itch among the spindles of idiotic pigeons or mice, his quintessence an improving talc or molasses: even his smallest knuckle became a plug above a log fire, his length of femur a tongue-suck in a weasel’s hole, his fig-misshapen ear a saint’s relic at the Fort Mac Revival, rope of texture in the rapeseed soup: his bits and fibres scoring all who ate or wore them with unaccountable strengths….”

“Reading poetry is like sticking your head into a muddy river,” Martens says of his less accessible language. “You might see a gold fish go by and the rest is a grey blur. But if that’s what you see, it’s still a miracle. If a poem could just rupture from the page into the long runs of flamenco, that would be the logical extension of what I was trying to do.” 

Some readers may be surprised Martens doesn’t offer more overt judgment about the industry as a whole. He does make reference to things like “the industrial reach,” “encampments rife with specters,” and, standing in opposition to the recurring image of aspens, the threatening, apocalyptic towers and furnaces. But anyone expecting straight-up moralizing or political statements will be disappointed.

Partly, this is a poetic choice. “I have certain sympathies,” Martens admits, explaining that the book’s title refers to a document about global climate change. “But being strident is bad art.” 

It’s also a personal choice, reflecting the empathy Martens gained from his experience. “These were stories that needed to be told. It was an immensely unexpected gift to me as a writer, as a son, as a person,” he tells me, saying he’s been able to share his poetry with his father and connect in a way he didn’t before, and that he has come to love, in some way, all the men he worked with. “I couldn’t have said that before writing the book.”

The impact of his work is being felt in wider circles as well. Martens won the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers in 2011 for a selection of poems from the manuscript that became this book. His work has been shortlisted for the UK’s Bridport Prize and Arc Magazine’s Poem of the Year Contest, and he’s been published in numerous journals and magazines as well as two anthologies. Martens also wrote the libretto for the international flamenco production Pasajes, performed in July at Victoria’s Royal Theatre. Being nominated now for a Governor General’s Literary Award is pretty impressive for a debut collection.

So whatever your feelings about the tar sands, Martens’ opening line is good advice for approaching this book: “Forget where you were going.” For if you let them, the poems will take you in directions you might not have considered, on rough roads you might not want to travel but which can lead you, as they did Martens, somewhere unexpected.

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig congratulates the Governor General award-winning Victoria-based poet Arleen Paré (announced November 18), and the other Victoria finalists: Martens, Bill Gaston and Janet Munsil.