Cover Image: Filthy Labors

Filthy Labors

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Member Reviews

This was just ok. I wasn't impressed with it. I suppose I might recommend it to a student. I didn't personally enjoy it and probably wouldn't recommend it to an adult.
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Filthy Labors: Poems by Lauren Marie Schmidt is her fourth collection of poetry. Her work has appeared in journals such as North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rattle, Nimrod, Painted Bride Quarterly, PANK, New York Quarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, The Progressive, and others. Her awards include the So to Speak Poetry Prize, the Neil Postman Prize for Metaphor, The Janet B. McCabe Prize for Poetry, and the Bellevue Literary Review’s Vilcek Prize for Poetry. 

Filthy Labors centers around the work that many in society chose not to see. Schmidt spends a good deal of time describing her work at Haven House for Homeless Women and Children and her experience there. In “How We Go” a woman’s babyfather “passed away.” Passed away is how she describes the death to her child. It is so much easier to say that than describe the violent death and bloody crime scene. It is a gritty world where she works. When asked if the poet was ever pregnant, she responds she has never had a child; that’s not the question. 

In “Unto Others” Schmidt quotes Mitt Romney’s 47% speech and counters it with Matthew 7:12 and Julius Caesar, act 3, scene 2 and continues with her own words. Each phrase is followed by Shakespeare’s “If any, speak.” Schmidt names the sections after the Catholic sacraments. Baptism, Penance, Holy Orders (three times), Anointing of the Sick, Confirmation, and Communion. All the poems are autobiographical or biographical dealing with family members and either an eccentric grandfather or a very progressive family. There is a little humor (or embarrassment) in her life. 

The introduction to the poems are provided by writers like Whitman, August Wilson, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Whitman is the key to her inspiration. Although naming sections after sacraments Schmidt shows that her religion, savior, is poetry. Her words and actions run much deeper than many people's religion.
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The short version: If you only read one book of poetry this year, let it be this one; I cannot recommend it highly enough. It was beautifully written, and provides incredible insight to those who feel most forgotten in the course of humanity.

The long version: Let me first say, I am in awe of this book. The last poetry book that I read, I finished in a day. It was a quick, easy read that left me feeling pretty good about myself afterward. But Lauren Schmidt's "Filthy Labors," with its poems on family, religion, and the Haven House for Women and Children, didn't allow me to do that.

Despite the fact that this book had less than a hundred pages of poetry, it took me four days to read it. It wasn't that it was difficult to read or unenjoyable. The reason I read so much slower than usual was because so many of the poems were so beautifully written, that I was afraid of reading this book too fast; I didn't want any of the poems to get lost amidst the rest.

When I say these poems are some of the most well-written poems I've read, there's a lot that comes into play. Each section of poetry is prefaced by a quote from Walt Whitman, which sets up the perfect framework for the following poems. The lines are full of musicality and lyricism; there's so much rhythm and internal rhyme and assonance that I actually had to read many of them out loud, because I just wanted so desperately to hear them instead of just read them. The structure of the poems is involved, too. There's a healthy balance between free-form poems and poems that are more traditionally structred; you'll see a smattering of villanelles, pantoums, and other poem formats. Line and stanza breaks are in the perfect places to imply double meanings, or to set the speed and tone of the poem. Even the order in which the poems are printed worked its magic on me, pushing me to read more right up to the end.

Despite how amazingly well-written these poems are, this is not a book to read if you're looking for something that will allow you to sit there and feel good about yourself afterward. This is much more a call to action and, at the very least, contemplation. Schmidt doesn't come across as preachy or judgmental, but in her explorations of her own dealings with family members and other people in her life, she challenges her readers to question how they themselves have treated and thought about their fellow humans. (There were several times when I was just sitting there thinking something like, "I can't believe you would say that about your own grandfa-- Listen, I may have thought it before, but YOU'RE the one who wrote it down and published it!!" But, of course, that's pretty much what she's getting at.) She also questions why some of us feel helping certain people is a sort of filthy chore, and what we are doing to change those thoughts.

Long story short, this was an amazing collection of poetry, and I can't wait for its publication date so I can buy a hardcopy to keep on my poetry shelf. If you have any interest in reading poetry, I would definitely find a copy of "Filthy Labors" for yourself!
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Filthy labors, as are those who certainly have made, and will make the women guest of a shelter for lonely women and children in which she worked as a teacher of creative writing. There is her experience in these poems that sometimes border on prose, while maintaining the literary tension of the poem, there are the voices of women, their questions, their initial incomprehension (why should I care about poetry when I have so many complications in life to think about?) and eventually the joy of having found a sounding board for their entry, and a new solidarity. Magnificent book, which extends the boundaries of poetry, or rather, call it back to its social function, its pure and crystal clear language, therefore unequivocal, to express discomfort and social demands.
Thank Northwestern University Press and Netgalley for giving me a free copy in exchange for an honest review.
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