Garth Martens, Prologue for the Age of Consequence, (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2014). Paperback, 120 pages, $19.95.
A lot has changed since 2006, when former Alberta premier Ed Stelmach explained the state of the Canadian oil industry: “You could call it the price of prosperity,” he said. “We’re doing well but it’s created some issues.” Today, we read about the very real, negative impact the oil industry has on the environment, but it’s not often we hear about the human cost. Oil prices have plummeted and thousands of people in Fort McMurray have lost their jobs. Garth Martens’s debut poetry collection, Prologue for the Age of Consequence, covers just that, taking the reader right into the belly of the Alberta tar sands to meet the coarse characters that keep the machine moving.
Martens, who won the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers—a national prize for writers under thirty-five—writes about what he knows, having worked in large-scale commercial construction for eight years. Today he lives in Victoria, British Columbia.
In his poems he introduces the reader to men who drip with grease and move through life without a thought of the impact their trade has on the environment. There’s Fat Gunnar, “who bullied other trades, tearing left or right without safety goggles, hardhat or a mask.” We meet Johnny Lightning with the crumpled storm clouds tattoo, and “the Albanians” whose mother was shot in the street when they were kids.
His characters are often unlikeable—crass, dirty, and racist. But Martens also casts a compassionate light on these men. He explores the violence of the world they inhabit and the impact it has on them. They work long hours of back-splitting work where, “you feel the ache around your eyes, the ramming blood, the cracked retinas.”
While the thought of the environmental impact of the oil industry makes many people squeamish, the uncomfortable truth is we are all culpable. Each of us is a resource-hungry being, reliant on fossil fuels and other energy sources. Martens is sure to remind us of this fact from the beginning, with his poem “Everything that’s yours”: “It comes from the chattering needle of a sewing machine. The radio at the prompt….The trees are burning and the other hand, reluctantly, takes the weight.”
The men who work in the tar sands are certainly not the villains in this story. They are the scapegoats of our guilt. And they face the most risk. It is the men on the front lines that are vulnerable to the substantial dangers involved with providing the rest of us with energy. “Remember, falls are the second-highest cause of death in construction.” Workers are physically stretched, sometimes pushed to drugs and sometimes even over to psychosis.
Martens does not filter the gritty world he relays. He uses language that startles the senses, like when he describes “the urinal with its dribblings of snot and sperm” and the “pails of piss [left] in the boiler room” as revenge when locks were put on the outhouses.
These visceral images make the poems difficult to read. They are cringe-worthy at times, particularly when he writes about women. This is a man’s world where women are props, “lego ladies,” often unnamed and existing only to be complained about when they aren’t sexually satisfying the men. Women are sneered at, used, and then disposed of—even, at one point, hoarked on. They’re called “bags,” “sluts,” “cunts,” and “bitches.”
Racist and homo-phobic slurs litter the book and what’s absent, amongst all this, is Martens’s voice. He’s not critical of the misogyny and racism, nor does he condone it. He lets the language stand alone, and his silence risks alienating some readers.
As the book moves through verses about the working conditions—“a death trap, really, panels, beams, ready to swing at a sneeze”—and the social violence, where men risk getting “boot stomped by five rig-pigs or broke with pipe or knife or worse.” Throughout all of this, the question arises: how long can this last? Both the lifestyles of the men working on the front lines of these industrial projects and the steady extraction of natural resources are ultimately unsustainable.
Prosperity, as the Stelmachs of the world call it, does indeed come at a price. And is it worth it? These days are, as Martens says, the prologue for the Age of Consequence. The decisions we make today will determine the not-so-distant future. He ends the book with an image that is frighteningly believable: “Perhaps we’ve known it, burning these many lives. The tower will erupt. Blacken Detroit, New York, Madrid, Montreal….The tower, fulgent with suck.”
Meghan Mast is a Winnipeg writer and videographer. Her bylines include The Globe and Mail, the Manitoba Cooperator, CBC Radio, the Winnipeg Free Press, and The Tyee.