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Blue Etiquette

Blue Etiquette
by Kathleen Driskell
Red Hen Press, 2016
Paperback $17.95
Genre: Poetry
Reviewed by Tina Mozelle Braziel

If you have ever smarted from a condescending boss or a dehumanizing job requirement or someone acting as if they are better than you, read Kathleen Driskell’s Blue Etiquette. Like me, you will revel in how Kathleen Driskell takes up class—a topic Americans loathe to examine—and how clearly she represents the emotional labor and social costs it exacts. As she says in “Oyster Fork” “what {she’s} after / is…/ an honest presentation— / for once— / of what it is / and what it wants.” In this well-crafted collection she does exactly that by introducing us to the service required of parlor maids, nursing home attendants, drivers, maitre d’s and others.

Driskell’s poems are georgic in how they emphasize the hard knowledge born from labor. Yet they complicate the georgic tradition by questioning the necessity of some work. For example, in “The Oak Room,” waiters are required to hold up a table cloth “curtain” around a heart-attack victim so other diners can enjoy their meals undisturbed. As Driskell leads us “down the dark tunnel of truth,” we come to realize that it is more nuanced than simply indicting the powerful. Instead, we are prompted to consider how many times we used etiquette to veil others (and ourselves) from the struggles of our fellow human-beings.
For me, the poem that hit closest to home is “Evolution.” It begins:

Aspiring to college
I set out
to evolve more quickly
than the finches
and tortoises
I’d read about and more
quickly than the coal miners
and factory workers
I’d come from

As a first generation college student, I am delighted by this surprising comparison that elevates the speaker’s position. As the poem continues, I identify with her, her work as a waitress, and why she would treat the beautiful young women dining with older men with “haughty distain.” When the poem makes its final turn, when it concedes that that these young women were also determined to evolve, I’m again surprised, shocked, in fact, into recognizing how easily I slipped into a similar elitism. This is the genius of Blue Etiquette, how it works to keep all of us honest. In time when the chasm between the haves and the have-nots seems to grow ever wider, this collection is all the more necessary.

Tina Mozelle Braziel, winner of the 2017 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry, directs the Ada Long Creative Writing Workshop for high school students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her collection, Known by Salt, will be published by Anhinga Press in 2019. Her chapbook, Rooted by Thirst, was published by Porkbelly Press in 2016. She and her husband, novelist James Braziel, live and write in a glass cabin that they are building by hand on Hydrangea Ridge.

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