News: Review of Undark: An Oratorio

2013-10-31 12:00:PM ago by jasmine.elliott

Review of Undark: An Oratorio
by Craig Visser

Her first major work following the GGA-shortlisted Exploding into Night, Sandy Pool’s Undark: An Oratorio elegizes thousands of female factory workers paid to coat watch dials with a glow-in-the-dark substance called Undark. At the same time that these workers were using their lips and teeth to “point” their brushes and painting their toenails for fun, the factory owners and resident chemists were avoiding all contact with the substance. Why? Ask Undark itself, a persona composed of text taken from early 20th-century advertisements: “does Undark contain real radium? / Of course it does” (12).

Yes, there was a time when radium might have been “the modern philosopher’s stone” rather than the perpetrator of such symptoms as necrosis of the jaw, severe anemia, spontaneous bone fractures and shortened limbs, all of which the “radium women” were told had come from syphilis. Undark’s readers are provided this information in a brief synopsis of the US radium dial-painting industry, which poisoned its female workers and subsequently fought in court not to compensate them. But many of the oratorio’s instruments—its “dramatis personae”—are not so enlightened. The poetry’s disturbing effect is due in part to the discrepancy between what we’re told and what we know. Take the radium women, who emerge amidst “demi-lit pander,” “dials in dayglow shades,” and “the ghost of Annie’s road” (4-5). Although they claim that “later we’ll laugh, shake moonlight / off our clothes, like ash” (4), we interpret this prediction with a miserable dramatic irony, the ghostly imagery coalescing with our knowledge of their fate.

Further contributing to this effect is what neither the historical context nor the personae can tell us. An important theme throughout the book is historical erasure. Consider the opening epigraph, a conversation between Waiting for Godot’s two protagonists, for whom the impetus to speak is to avoid the voices that arise from silence. Consider three of Undark’s personae: Sappho, the Greek lyric poet whose major works have been lost; Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh whose likenesses Amenhotep II would later attempt to erase from the Ancient Egyptian landscape; and Nox, the Greek goddess of night, relegated in mythology to shadows, glimpsed but never seen. The inclusion of these erased women’s voices suggests that the US Radium workers’ voicelessness (both legal and literal) is another iteration of a previous fate.

If the erasure of past experience is what allows that experience to be written again, is the reader, having been unfamiliar with the radium dial-painting industry, implicated in the women’s fate? After encountering Undark’s regrettably compelling rhetoric, that may be exactly how we feel: “you must / ask yourself this: what would you like / to see in the dark? Fishing lures? Clocks? / Buckles on bedroom slippers?! Most assuredly you do” (12). Undark’s presumption of its readership’s response injects the reading act with a voiceless complicity.

The juxtaposition of structurally and tonally disparate narrative voices creates uneven relationships between them, emotionally disorienting and disturbing the reader. If we juxtapose the product with its inventor, Sabin Von Sochocky, we find not a villain, but possibly another victim. His enthusiasm for radium transforms him in a disconcerting, albeit poetically attractive, manner: “I dip wrists to / elbows; seize the mercurial / obsession of moths. My face / eats radium, becomes blooms / becomes stars, becomes birds, all / wings beating at once” (15). Finally, the oratorio’s “chorus” implores us, “it will not love you to discuss these repetitions. Please: stop” (62).

Everything discussed above—the disturbing irony, the historical erasure, the suppression of voice—comprises both the reader’s reactions and, we feel, those of the female workers upon their victimization by US Radium. What makes Undark invaluable isn’t the narrative it reports, but the human experience it embodies and consequently instills in its reader, unable to be erased.

Craig Visser is pursuing his MA in English with a creative thesis at the University of Calgary. He hails from the University of Windsor's undergraduate program in English and Creative Writing, and is interested in cognitive semiotics and cognitive poetics.

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