Jupiter Works On Commission by Jack Phillips Lowe

Reviewed by Emma Lee

In Jupiter Works On Commission, Chicagoan Jack Phillips Lowe focuses on blue collar workers who work to live rather than live to work, perhaps under the influence of Fred Voss. “Meticulous Care” introduces the reader to Crystal, “23, fresh from college” and Schober “45, a 17-year company veteran”. Crystal interrupts Schober to ask him to email her rather than speak to her, which means that she has to return to her office on the third floor and he has to traipse up to the computer on the second floor, when their conversation takes place on the first floor.

Normally, this was the juncture
at which Schober would’ve stood marvelling
at the Point ‘n’ Click Generation,
its pathological fear of human contact
and its uncanny knack
for using labor-saving technology
to make life twice as difficult
as life ever was before.

Instead, Schober took his sweet time
strolling up to the 2nd floor computer.
He composed the required e-mail
with the same meticulous care
that Shakespeare gave to his sonnets.
When he and Crystal had spoken,
Schober had 30 minutes left in his shift.
By the time he smiled and clicked
the “send” button, his trip to cyberspace
had cost Crystal an extra payroll hour.

The use of the male worker’s surname, and statement that seventeen years is a long enough service, suggests the 45 year old is a veteran, and tells us to think of him as rock-steady, someone whose solid working practices are unnecessarily interrupted by computers. Giving readers Crystal’s first name, but not surname, suggests lesser status, even though she’s the manager. The age gap is barely a generation apart and the middle-aged generally aren’t computer-illiterate in contemporary times. This gives an air of menace to Schober’s subversiveness. Is this Crystal’s problem to resolve, or does she need his communication in writing to refer to someone beyond her pay grade? To me, the poem seemed to be more about the tick box, blame-shifting culture than inter-generational friction. That’s the difficulty of using one incident, expressed in generic terms, out of context. It opens up to more than one interpretation.

Context is also an issue in “Coo-Coo-Cachew”: a worker, Buchman, at the Returns and Exchanges counter, tries to liven up his boring day by imagining backstories for each customer. One looks like Dustin Hoffman; he decides he’s actually Benjamin Braddock, Hoffman’s character in “The Graduate”. The poem’s title recalls “Some Like it Hot” and Marilyn Monroe’s “I wanna be loved by you”:

‘Your company president’s going to hear of this!’
Buchman figures Ben is still smarting over Elaine’s
coming out as a lesbian and divorcing him 20 years ago.
Or maybe it’s because Mrs. Robinson, still spry at age 85,
refuses to friend Ben on Facebook.
‘Smartass!’ bellows the old man. ‘I want your name!’

‘No,’ replies Buchman, emerging from his reverie.
‘I never liked what you did to Mrs. Robinson.’

Instead of the wry one-liners and easy-going characters who learn that what they thought they wanted isn’t what they actually want – Sugar finding she loves a poor musician on the run, instead of the sugar daddy she had her eye on – this poem gives a predictable blurring of fantasy and reality, delivered prosaically. Buchman doesn’t deserve the customer’s bad temper, but readers never find out what the problem was, and are left with no context to decide whether the customer is overreacting.

In “Multiple Ironies” Christine Chubbuck, just before her thirtieth birthday, shoots herself live on air. Decades afterwards her page on a social media site is full of birthday greetings from men expressing regret that they never got to know or sleep with her, especially after her mother admits Christine was still a virgin when she died (why she’d admit this is never explained, except that it’s an irony given all the male attention the idea of her receives).

Nearly 40 years later, this lonely, depressed
and tragically confused woman has become an urban legend:
the subject of countless blogs and You Tube videos;
the ‘author’ of a popular Twitter account; a lauded icon for feminists
and journalism purists; the recipient of virtual bouquets
from ‘friends’ all over the world.

This is a story of multiple ironies.
The biggest among them is this: on what would’ve been her 68th birthday,
Christine Chubbuck has attained nearly everything she wanted in life.
And for that, all she had to do was die.

I’m not convinced. I don’t know whether the tragic newscaster would have had a successful career or not: what she might or might not have achieved after the age of thirty is an unknown. She could have hated her news casting job but not seen a way out. I don’t know if she’d have wanted to be all the things she became. Ironically the poet is projecting a life on her that equates him with the leavers of virtual bouquets.

Jack Phillips Lowe’s poetry is journalistic, recording microcosms of life from people whose voices aren’t generally heard. I don’t believe a writer has to walk a mile in another’s shoes to understand their life choices, but I don’t feel a sense of empathy in this work that lets me know his characters as people. Each poem’s role is to illustrate a point, and secondary characters are too often two-dimensional. This leaves Lowe to tell the reader what’s going on, instead of letting the characters tell their stories. I loved the idea of these poems, but don’t feel that they’re fully realised yet: the poet needs to find his Gordon Lish.