Rhonda Ganz’s day-by-day structure for Frequent, Small Loads of Laundry makes the reader think Wednesday’s child is full of woe. She is, but much more beside. As a first book, the voice, the care, and the self-reflection are remarkable. Unrelentingly personal scenarios with a cast of voices make Ganz’s debut a declaration. What’s next? What will this voice now speak?
Some poems recall C.P. Cavafy through the erotic and historical—Ganz joins both to demand total attention in the moment. More urgently (and more like Cavafy), these flashes of a deeply erotic charge or life-shaping moment are all quotidian, the familiar. Her sustained attention to the everyday binds everything together. Like the titular laundry, death and mourning or fecundity and pleasure revel in the everydayness of what poetry might otherwise make us feel is somehow exceptional. This enlivening of daily life is affective, whether Ganz makes James Joyce’s Ulysses allusively familiar, reading across Jasper to Winnipeg to Montreal (and of course transplanting Molly’s great affirmation into a bored Québécois diffidence) or hiring a gardener.
Recurrences define everyday experience, shifting and changing with Ganz as they accumulate new meanings. On Friday, we find a waxing marriage, but “Sex is not the problem—that’s what afternoons are for” because “She stops for a hitchhiker on the road out of Sooke” (45). The moment is erotic, but it’s hard to shake Friday following Thursday’s imperative “Permit Yourself An Afternoon Of Wailing,” in which “an addict shows up, /…And if one day she cuts down the holly / you have trained for a decade…, / mourn for everything / that will never grow back” (37). The afternoon is forever uneasy after this moment, and the heat of the erotic is never far from trauma. As the erotic becomes familiar, so too do we as readers discover the familiarity of trauma, both so much repeated that they lose their edge and “I, related once removed / to a headline from 1962—Mother kills children, then kills self—” (38).
This review starts backwards, from Sunday looking back to Monday, which infects the opening erotic poems with this later pain. However, readers will not first read the book this way. Instead, we have the unnamed “she” who “did frequent, small loads of laundry”, and she is with her lovers:
She called all of them Cowboy, baked sour cherry pies,
asked most to leave before daybreak. (2)
She didn’t believe in repeating herself. Given the chance,
she would do everything differently. (2)
Nevertheless, repetitions come, and the reader constantly rethinks what has already been written and read. Repetition is both the matter of the poems and their method. The mythic becomes quotidian with “Persephone Tries Internet Dating, But Every Man Reminds Her Of Hades” in which “Demeter insists I go on blind dates;” and “Don’t be so fussy, she says. / They can’t all be Greek” (4). This pushes the reader into confronting the temptation in poetry to make the everyday exceptional, as if an Ode to Tinder would recuperate the radical alienation of quotidian life. Ganz instead pushes further into the everyday to break the conceit of elevating and instead closes back on the familiarity of loss that takes comfort in its ordinariness rather than hiding in exceptions: “I miss you. / I miss our dog” (5).
This feeling that the mythic doesn’t somehow go beyond then holds to the reader proceeding across Tuesday until “All-Night Grocery” opens with the casual “Mention in passing, Cleopatra, / a bath in asses’ milk,” that sends the lover for milk to warm in the microwave (the ordinary intrudes) and then symptomatically lengthening lines for transportation to “where bliss is cresting Kneecap Mountain, climbing breast Plateau, / rising Shoulder Hill. The whole room smells like melted sugar” (11). Taken on its own, the poem melts in this richness, but it’s then hard not to warn Antony of Octavian’s return, the city’s siren call, and the asp waiting for the Queen.
Stylistically, Ganz varies the poems in the collection significantly, but the voice remains familiar. Beyond the mid-point, the poetry increasingly concerns loss. “Apocalimbo” shows “Dead ducks in the tailing ponds…. / We send the smallest into the tunnels first” (34). Anticipating tragedy, the verb tenses shift in “I Sleep The Sleep Of The Dearly Departed” for which the inversion of Eurydice says “My husband has left me for the dead” (47). This shifts from past to “My husband takes” and “If my husband can” and back again to “didn’t” and finally, the provisional “I want to ask my husband” (48). This is preparation for greater attention when we lose the husband to the dead woman, who is perhaps the memory of Eurydice herself, to finally hear “My child’s name was Carter, she says” (48). The simplicity of past tense suddenly makes it difficult to miss the deixis from “I” to “she” as a strategy for avoiding self-reflection and pain.
The reader closes the collection with the inverted face of desire that opens it. The everydayness of loss manifests in the dead mother poem, via Stephen Dunn, but turns in its closing back to Eurydice when “Dead mother trumps / dead father” leading in closing to “Dare the dead child, and / even a poet can’t bear / the next line” (67–8). It comes again in the sublimation of the dead cat in “Schrödinger’s Ladder” and the refusal to face what the poet can’t bear when deixis again loses the “I”: “the mother saw the ladder shift” and so tenderly “the boy’s hands holding the ladder were small” (69).
Every reader finishes the collection confronting the aporia shaped around the contours of loss. Ganz offers a compulsion to repeat by ending with “Permit Yourself An Afternoon Of Wailing II” in the centre of which the unspeakable palpably appears as a visible gap in page, just after the caesura. This is where Ganz’s talent speaks so forcefully—the reader needs to return and repeat (the poem is Part Two), just as the poetic voice continues to pass over memories again and again. We fill this gap with that which our own voice can’t dare and can’t bear.
This debut deserves attention.
Frequent, Small Loads of Laundry
by Rhonda Ganz
Mother Tongue,79 pp., $19.95 paper
James Gifford teaches English and Humanities. He is equally active in opera and early music.