Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
The winner of the 2019 Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest Award, Melinda Bufton’s Moxie is a delightfully dark, wryly observed, feminist-staged corporate takeover of the language of business and commerce. The speaker of the poems is a young woman with more than moxie to recommend her – even through her phases of self-doubt or submission to the company machine, she has chutzpah and inner strength as she rails against the monotony, misogyny, and relentless soul-selling. Of the many threads of meaning in this collection, the most striking is the resurfacing of the imagery of clothing and appearance.
The collection opens with “Scramble Your Signals to Protect Your Plans” (7-8): a poem in which the speaker reveals that she has recently been made redundant from an office job through the metaphor of a pair of tights. At an art exhibition, she purchases “a small pair of legs / in brooch form” (7). These legs draw “a charming (small picture) of [her] own legs / all done in porthole nets” (7). This purchase prompts her to reflect on the “brand of Voodoo tights” she has been buying “on repeat for three years” which are “at that moment being discontinued” (7). This regulation-issue item of office wear symbolises the double standards of women’s and men’s business attire – women in heels, skirts, and hot, uncomfortable tights that inch downwards and get ladders. It also signifies the environmentally destructive elements of big business: flimsy, disposable tights are the fastest of fast fashion items. When the speaker is made redundant, “the blue jeans cometh. And the sequential pairs of grey Deuce sneakers” (7). Jeans and sneakers are comfortable, but they are also a giveaway that she is now unemployed.
The speaker continues to read fashion as code for success – or, at least, corporate success – in “The Jobless Edit” (9-10). After the redundancy, she finds herself “stepping out into the spring sun each day with question marks / scribbled all over [her] countenance” (9). Using the second person, she reflects on her meeting “close to the end” with “the PVC – Ms Name-Initial-Name – and you were taken aback at / how mermaid her Italian knit slubby suit was and how charmingly / right her matching nail polish” (9). Distracted by the PVC’s attire and appearance, the young woman loses focus and uses what her superior calls “‘the wrong language’” (9). When this occurs, the power-dressing boss apparently takes off “marks re your lack of understanding of the purpose” (9). The use of “re” signals that corporate jargon is starting to creep into the poetry with the insidious intent of the serpent slithering into the Garden of Eden. The speaker voices her belief that “the / comely powers of a heel can heal everything” (9-10) but observes that she was wearing flats to the interview – a faux pas due to a torn muscle. She has swallowed the cultural norms and prejudices of the business world, washing down these pills with water from the office cooler in a little plastic cup.
In “It’s Best If You Have Your Own Lines” (66), the spectre of office attire again haunts Bufton’s trademarked long enjambed lines. The speaker remarks, “When I was 22 I used to talk to my friend about having a little / work persona” (66). Her friend – a social worker – does not understand, but others who work in the corporate world suffer the same problem as the speaker. A friend who is an economist “vomited each morning with the effort” (66). A vignette follows with the nonchalance of an anecdote and the full force of an accusation damning the business world:
Once, hit with the full force of being
squeezed into a too-tight identity hole
and a non-human workload
my lawyer friend asked me to take up her skirt hems as high
as possible, and then some (I knew how to do running repairs). (66)
Here, the usually long, sprawling, generous lines of Bufton’s verse are compressed to mimic the pressure crushing the lawyer who is “squeezed” into a pigeonhole. She “got a lunchtime nose ring and an armful of polyester shirts” (66), but it is not revealed whether she gained anything more abstract from the experience, such as a sense of fulfillment or peace.
Despite the intrusion of corporate language, norms, and values into the speaker’s poetry and psyche, she hits “ctrl alt delete” (68) on her life in the last poem of the collection, “Scopeful Dodger” (68). Evidently, her tools are still those of the business world – a computer – but she seems to have found some productivity and creative space of her own in the final lines:
Electric pressing of the wireless thoughts. You cannot produce when
pressed you must
produce when pressed and then you smile pleasant at this new creature
on the page. Oh look
it has my eyes. (68)
Then again, does the catch-22 phrase “You cannot produce when / pressed you must / produce when pressed” suggest that she is not liberated from the stresses of mass-marketing, mass-production, and mass-consumption? Does the breakdown of punctuation with the run-on sentences suggest a mental breakdown of sorts? And is this “new creature” really so new if it “has [her] eyes” or is it just a reboot – Office Girl Version 2.0, perhaps?
Moxie is a brilliant achievement from a prolific young Australian poet. The collection – Bufton’s third – is so cohesive as to be almost novel-like: a poem cycle. Bufton explodes the stale, suffocating, superficial language of the business world. Each corporation has a “message” and employees need to be “onboard” with such “branding,” but Moxie, it seems, has nothing so trite as a message. Instead, it resists. This is perhaps what makes it intrinsically a feminist work. Moxie is rich, rewarding reading.