Cloaked in Quiet Joy: Nick Courtright on CE Perry’s Night Work


night work

Night Work, C.E. Perry, Sarabande Books

A study in avoiding volta, C. E. Perry’s Night Work is a thin yet complex collection of fleeting events captured without the crutch of commentary. This stylistic approach—one in which her poems’ propositions rarely turn before heading down the home stretch—makes Night Work appear polished but not pristine, much like an astounding painting with ¼ blank canvas, with why exactly that ¼ is blank being open to debate: either the painter gave up on it, was trying to make a statement, or died before it was finished. In the case of Night Work, we know it’s not the latter, but which of the first two is correct isn’t quite clear.

But regardless of any debate on specifics, it remains true that the collection abounds with abrupt endings, and Perry’s poems are nearly dogmatic in their jarring abbreviation. While it’s possible that the sometimes-frustrating lack of closure isn’t always wholly purposeful, the effect is a slew of poems that reward through their ongoing process, their refusal to tuck themselves kindly into bed at the end of the night, and the open-ended wealth of possibilities promoted by the absence of conclusive declarations. Here, the final three stanzas of the six-stanza “Anatomy,” a tightly-bound poem that never breaks structure for the sake of revelation:

My knees are egg cups
buried deep in the dirt.
Your hips are the tips
of chopsticks that hurt.

My hands are the cooks
who simmer and poach.
Your hands are the cooks
who stay late and smoke.

My mouth is a box
where your name used to be.
Your heart is a watch
unfastened by me.

This effect keeps the reader moving forward, desperately seeking with flashlight in hand the switch which will illuminate the collection and provide final peace, a final peace that feels very close, but never quite arrives.

Content-wise, the emotional blatancy of some of the collection’s more palpable moments may be a bit much for some readers, as Perry isn’t shy to lift the uncomfortable to the forefront of her verse’s purpose:

Dora’s building a rocket
and she makes me watch her
do it. She makes me lie

about our plans and methods.
She calls me the Associate.
I know I’m sidekick to a flawed

qnd doomed hero. She twists
a branch like her father bends her
arm.

While the occasional use of imagery of the unfortunate can raise the stakes of a poem, repeatedly utilizing such, for lack of a better term, “shocking” material can feel a little “easy”, and Perry sometimes relies a bit much on these tropes. But despite this sometimes overt morbidity (or at least “fleshiness”), the tenderness of her lines and the care with which she crafts them should be enough to gain appreciation from even the most squeamish/“proper” of readers.

At the end of the day, Perry’s poems are cloaked in a quiet joy that can only come from being at peace with the greatest sorrow, as Night Work is a memorial to the unstated life of her son, Charlie, who passed away at five days of age. While one can only speculate as to the emotional trial of such a situation, this book is remarkable in that it never fails to hold itself to a standard higher than self-pity, and that even its darkest moments are only momentary; sure enough, each instance of suffering and pain brings the reader only that much closer to the next moment of revelation and affirmation. And to maintain that delicate balance, even in the face of continuing poetic development and personal struggle, is a fine accomplishment.

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