Tag Archives: National Poetry Month

Review: The Happy End/All Welcome by Mónica de la Torre

My Review:

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 installationThe 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
be used.

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
the other.

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
tubs.

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
Unhappy Hedonist!

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/

About the Author:

Mónica de la Torre is co-author of the book Appendices, Illustrations & Notes (Smart Art Press) with artist Terence Gower, and co-editor, with Michael Wiegers, of Reversible Monuments: Contemporary Mexican Poetry (Copper Canyon Press). She edited and translated the volume Poems by Gerardo Deniz, published by Lost Roads and Taller Ditoria, and has translated numerous other Spanish-language poets. Born and raised in Mexico City, she moved to New York in 1993. She has been the poetry editor of The Brooklyn Rail since 2001 and is pursuing a PhD in Spanish Literature at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in journals including Art on Paper, BOMB, Bombay Gin, Boston Review, Chain, Circumference, Fence, Mandorla, Review: Latin American Literature and Arts, and Twentysix. Talk Shows was her first book of original poetry in English.

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Review: The Inventors and Other Poems by René Char

This is my second review for National Poetry Month and is, once again, another unique volume published by Seagull Books.  The translator of this volume is Mark Hutchinson.

My Review:
The InventorsAs I first read the introduction to this volume, the piece of information that stuck out to me immediately was that Char was influenced by Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic philosopher.  Char imitates Heraclitus’ style of short and puzzling works as well as his theme of strife.  The pre-Socratic course I took in graduate school was one of the most challenging yet rewarding courses in my career as a student.  The Ancient Greek, which is fragmentary, is difficult to put together and even more difficult to analyze when one has come up with an English version. Heraclitus acquired the nickname “The Obscure” for good reason.  I had the same feelings, both of obscurity and difficulty, as I was reading Char.

The poems are in various lengths and some of the are not poems at all, but actually prose that still read like poems.  “Pontoneers” is an excellent example of a shorter work in the Heracletian style:

Two riverbanks are needed for truth: one for our outward

journey, the other for truth’s return. Paths that soak up their

mist.  That preserve our merry laughter intact.  That, even when

broken, are a haven for our juniors, swimming in icy waters.

I could spend a lifetime trying to unpack these few short lines and each time I look at them I find something different.  They are reminiscent to me of Heraclitus’ famous line about never being able to step into the same river twice.  But here Char reminds us of the ever-changing nature of our existence by posing two rivers and suggesting that what we experience, our own personal truth, may be different depending on which path we take.

Char struggles with the idea of existence and whether or not something of us serves in an afterlife.  Sometimes he comes across as a Stoic, such as in these few lines from “Loins.”

In taking leave of the world, we return to what was out there

before the earth and stars were formed; to space, that is.  We

are that space, in all its prodigality.  We return to aerial day and

its black rejoicing.

The Stoic idea that something of us, of our spirit, survives seems to be lurking in these lines.  But there are also times when I thought that Char leaned toward the Epicurean.  A line in “How Did I Ever Get this Late?” stood out to me as particularly Epicurean.  He imagines a deity that sets the human experience in motion but then steps back and has nothing else to do with its own creations.  The “Master Mechanic” watches his own chaos for his amusement:

In the immense community of the heavely clock

face, the Master Mechanic, it would seem, has greased the

motors and slipped away, chuckling, to amuse himself elsewhere.

This volume of poetry is nearly impossible to write a coherent review for.  The selections that are chosen for this edition are a sampling of the poet’s wide range of styles and topics.  Char’s enigmatic messages and obscure writing style are as difficult to unpack as Heraclitus.  But this is absolutely a volume that any lover of poetry will want to have on his or her shelf.  I find that the most challenging volumes of poetry are the most rewarding.

Finally, I have to say something about beautiful book jackets that are all designed by Sunandini Banerjee of Seagull Books.  Each volume is wonderfully colorful and captures the spirit of the poems contained within.

About the Author:
CharHe spent his childhood in Névons, the substantial family home completed at his birth, then studied as a boarder at the school of Avignon and subsequently, in 1925, a student at L’École de Commerce de Marseille, where he read Plutarch, François Villon, Racine, the German Romantics, Alfred de Vigny, Gérard de Nerval and Charles Baudelaire.

Char was a friend and close associate of Albert Camus, Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot among writers, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Victor Brauner among painters.

 

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Review: The Collected Poems of Proust

For my next installment of reviews for poetry month I decided to tackle this dual-language edition of the collection poems of Proust.  It was published in 2013 by Penguin and I bought a copy of it myself.

My Review:
Proust PoemsThese poems are a glimpse into Proust as a human being and not Proust the serious novelist.  The poems were collected from a wide variety of places, including letters to his friends, journals and notes, and some were even scrawled on scraps of paper or envelopes.  We often envision Proust as the asthmatic, shut away from society as he labored over his major work.  But these poems reveal to us a funny, playful, intelligent man who fully engaged in life and embraced all of its wonders.

It is rumored even when Proust was alive that he was homosexual.  The poems reveal a man who was definitely struggling with his sexuality in a time period in which homosexuality was completely unacceptable.  In the poem that opens the collection he writes to Daniel Halvey:

For what is manly mockery to me?
Let Sodom’s apples burn, acre by acre,
I’d savor still the sweat of those sweet limbs!
Behold a solar gold, a lunar nacre,
I’d…languish (an ars moriendi of my own),
deaf to the knell of dreary Decency!

There are also amorous poems in the collection written to women, such as “Lines to Laure Hayman” in which he recollects her beautiful form.  Another poem is written to an actress whom he saw play the role of Cleopatra.  These lines imply an admiration of the woman that goes beyond friendly recognition of her performance:

You have surely dethroned the Egyptian Queen
You are at once artist and work of art
Your spirit is deep as is your regard,
‘Though no beauty like hers was never seen.

The sentiments in the poems jump from love and friendship, “Love draws from the heart a scent of roses,” to loss and agony, “So tired of having suffered, more tired of having loved.” These lines represent the waves of emotions Proust rides and jots down as he is living his everyday life.

Proust is also petty, bawdy and even vulgar. In one poem he writes:

They say a Russian, may God preserve his soul,
Managed to rouse a flutter of sensation
In Ferdinand’s leathery, tanned, and well-worked hole
By slipping in up to the hilt his brave baton.

In a few of the poems written to his friends his instructs them to burn the poems after they have been read because the poems contains some unflattering verses about aristocrats within their social circle.

There are 104 poems in the collection in total.  None of them are very long which is appropriate as they are meant as little messages to friends in letters and oftentimes casually written on scraps of paper.  The notes in the back of the book are very helpful in understanding to whom the poems are written and what their relationships were to Proust.  For a amusing glimpse into the candid world of this famous poet I highly recommend perusing this dual-language edition.

About The Author:
ProustMarcel Proust is a French novelist best known for his 3000 page masterpiece À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time), a pseudo-autobiographical novel told mostly in a stream-of-consciousness style. Born in the first year of the Third Republic, the young Marcel, like his narrator, was a delicate child from a bourgeois family. He was active in Parisian high society during the 80s and 90s, welcomed in the most fashionable and exclusive salons of his day. However, his position there was also one of an outsider, due to his Jewishness and homosexuality. Towards the end of 1890s Proust began to withdraw more and more from society, and although he was never entirely reclusive, as is sometimes made out, he lapsed more completely into his lifelong tendency to sleep during the day and work at night. He was also plagued with severe asthma, which had troubled him intermittently since childhood, and a terror of his own death, especially in case it should come before his novel had been completed. The first volume, after some difficulty finding a publisher, came out in 1913, and Proust continued to work with an almost inhuman dedication on his masterpiece right up until his death in 1922, at the age of 51. Today he is widely recognised as one of the greatest authors of the 20th Century, and À la recherche du temps perdu as one of the most dazzling and significant works of literature to be written in modern times.

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Review: Poems About Cats with illustrations by Yasmine Surovec

In order to celebrate poetry month I will be reviewing a series of poetry books and for the first one I chose a whimsical little title about our furry friend, the cat.  This collection includes poems about cats from a wide range of poets including Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Dickenson.  Thanks so much to the publisher, Andrews McMeel,  for granting me an advanced review copy of this title through NetGalley.

My Review:

Poems about CatsCats are the kind of cute creature that countless creative minds have celebrated in their compositions.  The creative minds in this collection capture, through their couplets and verse-chimes,  the constant commotion caused by cats.  Wordsworth in his poem “The Kitten and Falling Leaves” writes:

But the Kitten, how she starts,
crouches, stretches, paws, and darts!
First at one, and then its fellow,
just as light and just as yellow.
There are many now – now one,
now they stop and there are none:
What intenseness of desire,
in her upward eye of fire!

In the poem “A Cat’s Conscience” the author considers the uncanny characteristic of a cat to ignore it’s conscience, and, unlike their fellow canines, cats do not care if they cause a ruckus, just so long as they don’t get caught!

A dog will often steal a bone,
But conscience lets him not alone,
And by his tail his guilt is known.
But cats consider theft a game,
And, howsoever you may blame,
Refuse the slightest sign of shame.

In conclusion, Christopher Smart (1722-1771) casts the cat as the center of the household.  I found this to be one of the most touching of all the poems and the illustration which accompanies it captures the verse perfectly.

Poems about Cats pgs. 60 and 61Whether you have a clowder of cats or just a couple, this is a great book to keep on your coffee table as a conversation piece.  I hope you enjoyed my little attempt at alliteration to capture the playful spirit of these poems.  What are you reading for poetry month?  For a preview of some additional poetry I will be reviewing click here.

 

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April Is Poetry Month: What are you reading?

 

Essential PoemsI received a collection of poems from Open Road Integrated Media which was put together especially for NetGalley users.  I enjoyed the collection because it allowed me to sample so many works from different poets. My favorites from the collection are the poems written by Erica Jong and May Sarton.

Erica’s Jong’s poems are short, yet vivid reflections on love and loss of love.  There are only three of her poems included in this collection but the sample is enough to understand that Jong adeptly employs the rhetorical question to make the reader think about his or her own experiences with lost love: “Who loved you so relentlessly?” Her use of the chiasmus (ABBA patterns) is equally thought-provoking: “I want to hate you and I cannot. But I cannot love you either.”  One of my favorite poetic devices in Latin poetry, especially Catullus, is the polyptoton, the use of the same word in different forms.  I found in Erica Jong’s poetry some of most intriguing uses of polyptoton I have encountered in English poetry: “Betrayal does that–betrays the betrayer” and “It is our old love I love, as one loves certain images from childhood-.”  For more information on Erica Jong and her full collection of poems as well as her novels, visit Feed Your Need to Read.

Poetry Preview:

I have acquired quite a few collections of poetry which I will be reviewing throughout the month of April.  This is a little Proust Poemsteaser of what is to come.  One of the collections that I am most excited about is The Collected Poems of Proust, published as a dual language edition with the original French of each poem facing the English translation.  These poems show us a very different side of the novelist and were written throughout his life, from the age of seventeen to his death at the age of fifty.

The next collection I will be reviewing are a series of poems written by Edith Wharton that are include in the Dover Reader.  This collection of her writings includes her most famous novels, Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence, but it also contains four of her poems which I am excited to read.

Poems about CatsI also have also acquired a book called “Poems about Cats.”  Now don’t laugh, but my love of our furry friends was not the only thing that drove me to request this tome from the publisher.  This collection includes poems about felines from famous poets such as Shakespeare, Wadsworth, and Blake.  Who knew that so many famous poets were also admirers of our feline friends!  The book also includes whimsical drawings on each page by the famous illustrator Yasmine Surovec.

Finally, I will review the City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology: 60th Anniversary Edition.  Poetry from some of City Lights Poetsthe most famous American and international poets are gathered together in this one special volume; Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Julio Cortázar, and Frank O’Hara all have poems featured in the collection.

I will mention that I am also translating the poems of Catullus and selections from Vergil’s Aeneid this semester with my students.  I would be remiss if I didn’t give a nod to my favorite Latin poets.  I will, however, spare everyone from my reviews of these poets for fear that my commentary would be much too lengthy to keep anyone’s attention.

This is my poetry review list for April.  I would love to hear what everyone else is reading for poetry month!  Let me know in the comments.

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