By Tori Grant Welhouse
Wikipedia tells us that “a stick figure is a very simple drawing of a person, composed of a few lines, curves, and dots,” and that “graffiti of stick figures are found throughout history, often scratched with a sharp object on hard surfaces such as stone or concrete walls.”
The poems of Stick Figure with Skirt by Cathryn Cofell often feel like they’ve been scratched into a hard surface with a sharp object. Take these lines from “Angry Flesh Cento”:
“Today, she falls angry a lot,
She’s done angry to that ankle at least five times,
She’s never heard angry sing so poorly,
Angry leading from her nose.”
A cento is a verse form that’s composed of lines from other writing, but here Cofell co-opts the form for her own purpose. The word “angry” is used in every line of the poem, in every form of the word — noun, verb, adjective, adverb. She transmutes language to convey the breadth of her indignation. The poem is about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history. 146 workers died. Most of them women. Some as young as 14 leaped to their deaths because stairwells and doors were locked to prevent them from taking unauthorized breaks. Basic working conditions changed after the 1911 tragedy, but the poem is a central allegory.
In fact, “work” is a theme throughout the book. Cofell is a “working girl,” contending with sexism and stereotypes in the workplace, and our first clue is an inscription from Tess McGill from the movie of the same name, which reads “I am not steak. You can’t order me.” Our second clue is the table of contents. The poems are organized around the days of the workweek.
The title poem “Stick Figure with Skirt” occurs in the TUESDAY section:
“Stick figure in pencil skirt and heels
is the universal sign for career woman
but notice she has no mouth no eyes
no opposable thumbs on her two stick hands.”
As a working girl, Cofell has worked her share of jobs. In “Nine Ways of Rising,” she writes: “The average worker will hold 10 different jobs in his or her/lifetime. I am above average.” The attitudes towards women in the workplace should have shifted since the early 1900’s, but the transaction of work as a woman is very felt in the poems, and the costs seem to be disproportionately dear.
Work poems are one theme, but in the collection Cofell flexes her poetry muscle in other ways, too. She is metaphysical:
“they are losing control in the stifle and slough
they are heaven
ass-tipped and on fire,”
from “Swelter Theory.”
She is nostalgic, reminiscing childhood, mothers.
have I told you how as children
we gave our mothers nothing but
construction paper and grief.”
From “This Way.”
She is whimsical, but even when she’s being her most comedic, there’s a certain steeliness to the poems.
“My husband has cleared out a corner of my office
To create a space for my inner peace.
He tells me I need it.”
From “Guided Meditation.
Throughout the book a sense of chafing or friction abides as Cofell offers poems that deliver lessons of disaster.
“For every disaster
you must inspire, you must offer a fix: the last
roll of duct tape, a sheepish sidearm hug,
the gift of a cauterized heart.”
From “What I Learned from My Father.”
The poems in Cathryn Cofell’s Stick Figure with Skirt have enduring relevance in today’s era of #metoo and employee disengagement. Everyone should read the collection. Employers should read the collection. The poems are deep marks on the wall.
Tori Grant Welhouse’s poems have been most recently published in Barstow & Grand, The Write Launch and Up North Lit. She has published two chapbooks, Canned with Finishing Line Press (2014) and Stashed: A Primer in Lunch Poems (2019). She is an active volunteer with Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.