01 July 2012

Onion Man by Kathryn Mockler

Onion Man

By Kathryn Mockler
Tightrope Books
Perfect Binding, 128 pages
ISBN: 978-1-926639-39-0

Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Dawn Leas

There are topics that authors explore which have the ability to transcend boundaries - cultural, socio-economic, and geographic - because they are experiences that know no boundaries, ones that most readers will identify and connect with, whether based on personal experience or second-hand knowledge. Alcoholism. Teen drinking and drug use and sex. Infidelity. Families split by fissures. Alzheimer's Disease. Kathryn Mockler guides her readers through the waters of several of these universal topics with equal measures of grit and grace in her debut collection of untitled, linked poems titled Onion Man.  

Onion Man tells the story of an 18-year-old girl who is working a summer job in the warehouse of a corn-canning factory in London, Ontario, which also happens to be Mockler's hometown. Mockler's concise economy of words does not short-change the reader, but rather adds a simple lushness and steady boldness that pulls the characters and the readers into and through the varied layers of the story. This pared-down-to-the-core verbiage packs power – emotionally and intellectually. It is also evident early on that this is not a collection quickly thrown together, but rather one that has been carefully plotted, cultivated and executed.

From the first page to the last, we watch the narrator acting like a typical teenager – smoking, drinking, hanging out with her boyfriend Clinton and her friend Stacey, working a summer job, questioning the present and her future. We witness her dealing with her mom's drinking problem and the behaviors that accompany addiction such as the maintenance of a “picture perfect” persona paired with the often hidden dysfunction of the disease – lacing Diet Coke with vodka and a bedroom filled with filth and clutter. We observe her figuring out the “hierarchy” of factory life. We see her deal with the declining health of her grandfather and her grandmother's response to it. 

Mockler frames these life experiences within scenarios that are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes scary, sometimes revelatory, but always real and tangible for the readers. There are lives of hard living within these pages, and we walk with the narrator as she vacillates between hope and hopelessness; fear and strength as she tries to make sense of significant events that are happening to and around her.

Woven throughout its pages are lines with literal and figurative meanings. In one poem, the narrator is speaking about the noise in the warehouse, but she also mentions that she and Clinton don't wear ear plugs. She continues with:

“But I've/noticed/lately that/I'm not/hearing/him as/well as I/used to.”

While this could mean because of damage done to her hearing by the noise level, it could also portend the decline of and eventual end to their relationship. A few pages later, she describes how her mother made them hunker down in the basement because of tornado warnings. The poem ends with:

“In the end, there wasn't/any storm, just the worry and the threat.”

In addition to the actual storm that never came, it can also point to the unpredictability of living in an alcoholic home and the constant worry and threat that comes along with it.

Caught in between the teen angst and dysfunctional lives of the narrator and Clinton is the sad story of the character for which the book is named – Onion Man. He is a quiet immigrant who is in “a country where/ he doesn't speak/the language” and “every night he/peels an onion and eats/it as if it were an apple.” The narrator is the only one who tries to get to know him, who shows concern when he misses work and learns that he loses his son in an accident. Onion Man commits suicide in the warehouse, and when the the narrator finds him, it is a sad, pivotal point:

“I/don't blame him. He/was mourning the loss/of his son. And people/here treated him badly./Cruelness reminiscent/of a schoolyard is the/only way to describe it./I don't know why people/like to kick someone/who is down, but they/do.”

Although the factory produces and moves endless numbers of cans, the people who work “on the lines”  are in a holding pattern, repeating the same movement and tasks hour after hour, day after day, week after week – an entire career's worth of years. But the narrator wants something different, seems to know that there is more “out there.” And she seems to believe that university can be the gateway to it, but Clinton shoots that theory down:

“You /think people who go to university/like their jobs any better? he says./Life is depressing. That's why/ it's a good idea to be drunk/for most of it or at least stoned.”

Both the narrator and Clinton struggle with the fear of the unknown and the desperate want for something else outside the limits of their hometown. Clinton constantly talk about plans of heading west, moving to BC, but when they have a pregnancy scare she questions him about what they would do. He replies:

“he'd work at the factory, and/I'd stay home with the kid.”

At the close of the collection, there are ends left untied. Although this can sometimes cause irritation, it doesn't in Onion Man. It is more of a reminder that this is how life is for those struggling to make rent, or teetering on the rope bridge that spans adolescence and adulthood. In the last poem, the narrator freely admits her fear of the unknown: 

“I'm scared to go into the future/because I don't know what will happen./ The future is like walking into  a river and/ not knowing if you will step on leeches/or sand. 

But, as the reader you will feel the need to cheer her on to taking that next bold step knowing she can find her way through the leeches to the smooth sand. 

I was equally impressed by the attention to visual detail because it supports the content so well. The cover color and the striations in the paper feel like and resemble the texture of an onion. The shaded sketches of the Onion Man on the cover, title and last pages of the book support its mood. The one-stanza structure of the poems can represent the corn cans and the assembly belts they travel.

After placing the book on my end table, I felt a lingering tinge of sadness that made me reminisce about pivotal points in my own adolescence and reflect on the current uncertainty in the world. However, even as Mockler paints ableak portrait of the workers clocking in and clocking out day after day doing their jobs amidst personal problems, loss, and the mundaneness of everyday life, a glimmer of hope was evident. I was left with a feeling of a Howard Jones moment to the tune of “Things Can Only Get Better,” not only for the main character, but also for the state of our country.

In Michael Turner's blurb on the back of Onion Man, he states “this is a book I will read more than once.” I completely agree with him. It is a powerful, poignant, and thought-provoking first book. I will also add Mockler's next collection, The Saddest Place on Earth, to my reading list. It is scheduled for release by DC Books this fall.

Dawn Leas's chapbook, I Know When to Keep Quiet, was released in 2010 by Finishing Line Press. She earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. Her work has appeared in goldwakepress.org, Literary Mama, Willows Wept Review, Southern Women's Review, Interstice, Poetry in Transit, and others.

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