Laurie Saurbourn Young, Industry of Brief Distraction
Publisher: Saturnalia Books
2014, 74 pages, paperback, $15
Playful and remarkably immediate, Laurie Saurbourn Young simultaneously sets up and subverts readers’ expectations with refreshing energy in her collection, Industry of Brief Distraction. Her tightly controlled language draws the reader in, makes them feel safe in a description of a familiar scene, whether it’s a road trip down an American highway or a gym, then quickly turns it around with a twist that is both humorous and resonant, sometimes to the point of discomfort. A water tower shaped like a peach rises from the landscape “like the moon’s ass” and women at the gym run on treadmills toward “the closed-captioned words You little/ Bitch” on the television. This is a collection with a bone to pick with the everyday, full of poems that capture the struggle to make sense of the world around us and face its sometimes-uncomfortable truths.
Saurbourn Young bookends the five sections of her collection with poems entitled “Patriot.” These poems attempt to define “America,” yet simultaneously refute their ability to do so. For Saurbourn Young, America becomes an idea, and each new attempt at definition stresses language’s failure to capture its essence. At first, America is a “Line of thunderstorms on the weather map,” then “So is drinking pale champagne and pouring/ Three-fifths of the bottle down the drain.” It is “Forever men taking a break with grease/ Under their nails,” and “Emergency room nurses debating/ Glocks verses .22s while [her] husband cannot/ breathe.” With such varying moments of definition, Saurbourn Young makes America feel like a riddle to which an answer seems eternally on the tip of the tongue. But, at the same time, she embraces this slipperiness of language, and asserts, “an answer is not the point,” defying the notion of meaning-creation itself.
While much of the “Patriot” poems focus outwardly, toward the definition of a universal, Saurbourn Young also explores the tension between the exterior and interior. While much of these poems employ a persona that remains removed from the action, in one of the “Patriot” poems, she states:
Who lives beneath a true tin roof is America.
Who passes the bottle of whiskey around
In a trailer by Hood River is me.
With this, Saurbourn Young establishes a divide between herself and what she sees as America. This tension climaxes with the final poem in which she asserts “But this is America, still debating/ Whether as a woman, whether I am worth.” The directness with which Saurbourn Young makes this assertion strikes with a suddenness that leaves the reader unnerved. But this is one of this collection’s greatest strengths; Saurbourn Young hits upon these uncomfortable truths with unflinching boldness.
Other times, Saurbourn Young removes the distance between her and the world and conveys a deep empathy for her subjects. In “Proto-industries,” when she describes a girl walking around a hospital, she admits:
I have slept soundly in forty-
nine states and know it is okay
to be broken and waiting
for someone to call your name.
The vulnerability of these lines makes her voice, while willing to express uncomfortable truths, relatable as well as emotionally charged.
Formally, Saurbourn Young’s poetry is as inventive as the content. With a variety of forms, from the unbroken verse of the “Patriot” poems, to the widely spaced across the page tercets of “Pretty Girls Are Everywhere,” Industry of Brief Distraction keeps its reader on their toes, yet feels at the same time cohesive. A poem with one of the most unique forms, “Drone,” demonstrates the poet’s control over how her words function on the page. The large spaces between lines and the varying number of lines per page make the reader take in the poem with a slowed-down pace, appropriate to the title. At one point, Saurbourn Young exclaims:
Marigolds in summer
are small faces
With so much space between them, each line is given individual weight, and could be taken either by itself or as part of the whole progression. This provides the poem with a multiplicity of meanings, a similar multiplicity evoked by Saurbourn Young’s other poems in the collection.
Overall, Industry of Brief Distraction is a powerful work that, while startling in places, and discomforting in others, resonates at a profoundly human level. It achieves what all good poetry achieves; it takes the reader on a journey that allows them to view not only their world in a new way, but themselves as well.