As much as companies like Google have attempted to rearrange office space into non-traditional configurations and break free of the rat maze of traditional cubicles, we still show up to work every day and have to function within a corporate structure. Monica de la Torre’s collection of poems in The Happy End/All Welcome satirize the futile attempts of office dwellers to break free of the constraints imposed on them by bosses, human resources, and even the chairs they sit in. De la Torre cleverly highlights the absurdity that we face in our every day work lives by using a scene from the unfinished Kafka novel, Amerika, as her backdrop.
Kafka’s Amerika, which was published posthumously, tells the story of sixteen year-old Karl Roßmann who is forced to emigrate to the United States after it is revealed that he was seduced by a housemaid. At the end of the novel, after Karl has had adventures with a stoker from the passage ship, a couple of drifters and his uncle, he sees a job advertisement for the Nature Theater of Oklahoma which promises to employ every applicant. When Karl is hired as a “technical worker” he goes off to Oklahoma by train but the novel breaks off suddenly within this final chapter. The poems in de la Torre’s collection are all set in a job fair being held by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma from Kafka’s novel.
De la Torre uses an interesting array of formats and arrangements for her poems: interviews, ad copy, reports, questionnaires and descriptions of chairs are all employed to satirize every aspect of corporate life from the job interview, to office design, to strategic plans, to the use of social media and to office politics. Inspired by artist Marin Kippenberger’s installation “The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s Amerika” the poet states at the beginning of her collection that we are to imagine “an assortment of numbered tables and office desks with pairs of mismatched chairs within a soccer field flanked by grandstands.” The numbered tables become the settings of poems involving job interviews for applicants who are sorely unqualified but are hired anyway. These series of poems magnify the painful experience for everyone involved–applicant, employers, human resources, headhunters— in the job application process. At Table 20, for example, an aspiring lifeguard with a terrible case of astigmatism is immediately given the job despite openly admitting his vision impairment. And some applicants are asked to do the most random, absurd tasks that seem more fitting for auditions for a reality TV show than an office job:
Three people sitting on a tandem bench come forth.
Each applicant is assigned a color around which to improvise
lyrics for jingles.
Only found language displayed in the color assigned to each can
Applicants are given two hours to go searching for text in the city.
The Assistant Director selects corresponding loops from the
Buddha Machine 2.0, a portable music player, as accompaniment.
One of the funniest and most absurd poems describes a headhunter and the object of his hunt, a man who oddly looks like the artist Martin Kippenberger:
A Headhunter at the hunting blind at the edge of the field
keeps an eye on a middle-aged potbellied man in oversized
underwear who eerily resembles Martin Kippenberger. He’s
about to get in a full-sized Barbie tub near a couple of lifeguard
chairs, holds a cigarette in one hand and a hard-boiled egg in
In the Headhunter’s estimation, the man could be either rapt
in thought or overhearing the interview between the Bather
and the Lifeguard next to him. He might also be reminiscing
on the teepee villages at American Western theme campsites
he stayed at in the old days with friends, which always had hot
The Headhunter wonders if he is seeking employment—why
else would he be at the fair? He cannot begin to imagine
what position might be appropriate for this individual defying
categorization, whose insouciance clashes with the professional
aspirations of the fairgoers.
An idea comes to him in a flash: this man could play the
This poem is set in the middle of the collection and serves a centerpiece that showcases de la Torre’s many talents as a poet. The image of the headhunter lurking in the bushes underscores the ridiculous name given to workers whose role is recruitment. She also brings us back to Kippenberger the artist whose installment is the specific inspiration for her strange job fair setting. As the headhunter marks his “victim,” he proceeds to psychoanalyze him so that he can slot him into the company role that will suit him best, even if he has to invent a new job title. It appears that the theater will now have an “Unhappy Hedonist” which position reminds us of the absurd titles that corporations have used to give a façade of importance in order to attract the highest quality of candidates for jobs which no one can clearly identify. As I was reading this poem I kept thinking about the vague names we have for jobs even in schools. For instance, we no longer have the specific title of “Librarian” but instead we now have the difficult-to-pinpoint position of “Media Specialist.”
When one does finally land what he or she thinks is a desirable job, reality and disappointment often set in as we see in this Case Study poem. It is interesting to note that Kafka’s working title for his novel was “The Man Who Disappeared” which is fitting for the theme of an oppressive and hard-to-break-free-from system of working life where few stand out among the corporate crowd. The tone of this piece is markedly sadder than others in the collection:
On the first day of a new job, after quitting a highly desirable
one, the subject experiences genuine befuddlement when asked
to contribute $20 for a colleague’s taxi fare from the airport.
The day’s obligations include putting documents in boxes and
loading them into a coworker’s trunk. It soon becomes ap-
parent that the subject occupies the lowest rung of the bureau-
cracy and that, other than this odd version of paperwork, there
is nothing of consequence at stake.
The most clever and thought-provoking pieces were those that explored the idea of how we use furniture and space in an office. An entire thriving industry has been devoted to choosing, planning and fitting out offices to make workers more comfortable and more productive. De la Torre’s poems exude a particular tension between open and confined space, and productive and unproductive workers and ask us to think about whether or not a different arrangement of space truly makes people more active and engaged members of an office hierarchy. In one of the poems entitled “Yes or No,” she writes:
So that personnel can move around and up and down
and function as vertical machines
office landscapes are sectioned into action offices.
It is suboptimal to give vertical machines space to move
around and up and down.
Flexible offices are not cost-effective.
Furniture in action offices is placed orthogonally.
Plants are replaced by partitions on three sides.
Action offices become cubicles.
Action offices become dead offices.
Plants enliven offices in pictures.
Living offices are safe environments for plants.
These poems force us to question whether or not it really matters how we arrange our furniture, our partitions, or our plants. There is still a hierarchy which must be obeyed in a workplace environment or all will fall into chaos. This collection uses several descriptions of chairs as a metaphor for the constraint that must be endured when we walk into an office regardless of how the space is used or how it is decorated. De la Torre poems include “The View from an Aeron Chair,” “The View from the Folding Chair,” “The View from a Womb Chair” and so on. My favorite view from a chair is the Dodo Chair. The Dodo is a swivel armchair, easily converted into a lounger, which is ergonomically designed for comfort. But the poet uses a reference to the extinct bird by the same name to satirize the practicality of a comfortable chair in an office where not a single moment of rest is allowed.
A mutable shape stating that downtime hasn’t gone the way of the Dodo.
Yet the days of sitting around seem extinct.
Now it’s all go-go. No need to go into it; who doesn’t know the feeling?
The dodo maybe? Its temporality is other.
Its inability to adapt rendered it obsolete.
It is ironic that in an age in which we are working longer hours, are more stressed out than ever that we spend so much time in fitting out our offices with just the right type of chairs and configurations of chairs. De la Torre sums it up best when she writes, “The office chair’s revolution is an oxymoron.”
This is one of the most clever, well-written, descriptive and hilarious collection of poems I have read this year. For anyone looking for a new and innovative book of poems for poetry month then this one comes highly recommended by me.
Read an interview with Monica de la Torre about her inspiration for this collection at Lit Hub: http://lithub.com/monica-de-la-torre-on-corporatese-and-the-oppression-of-fancy-chairs/
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