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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: in field latin by Lutz Seiler translated by Alexander Booth

Lutz Seiler was born in the former East Germany in the Langenberg district of Gera, Thuringia.  He first had a career as a skilled construction worker as both a bricklayer and carpenter.  It was during his service in the National People’s Army that he first took an interest in poetry and literature. Since 1997 he has been the literary director and custodian at the Peter Huchel Museum in Wilhelmshorst.  He has won numerous awards for his writing including the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for his short story volume Turksib.

in field latin, published by Seagull Books in 2016, is Seiler’s debut volume of poetry translated into English.  Divided into seven sections which include between one and eleven poems, this collection gives us an interesting glimpse into life in the former East Germany via lyrics that describe landscapes, personal reflections and ghosts.

The most striking images that Seiler weaves throughout this collection are those of nature; in the first poem, entitled “Departure” he invites us into his bucolic world:

bed against window, the trip
into the wood, ever more softly
shifting gears & sleep: every

dream begins uphill, at the fence
onto the street where
someone squats like you, where

the resinous poppy with its
capsules clings to your ears, where
above already blossom edges have

gone to grey…leaf
after leave put into place
& uncompleted sent away.

The short, startling lines in this first poem are typical for the entire collection where images of reality and dreams are mingled and blurred.  His poetry is both personal reflection but also captures the universal feeling of calm while walking in the woods in autumn.  In “autumn” he writes:

is silence & custom. autumn
is rake, wood, is a mild
chill upon the eyes &

unexpected gooseflesh.  is also
the good old ready-to-fight feeling, soft, secret, skull-still
designs maturing.  the leaves all burnt, sand

still warm beneath the ashes, you
feel it now upon your hand: something
wants to flee &something never leave…

The ghosts of the past, both personal and political, also pervade his poetry.  The phrase “all the wasted time” in the following poem entitled “the stay” in particular stood out to me as an interesting commentary on the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of his country:

one evening they came
the dead of my house
back from the train-station.  one

after the other, with
balled fists, reminiscent
of tulips in their

nigh-reserve, reminiscent,
in the long being-dead, of all
the wasted time.

In a poem entitled “culmitzsch” Seiler weaves together images of landscapes, ghosts and life in the former East Germany.  The translator includes some excellent and helpful notes in the back of this edition and for this poem he explains that Culmitzch was a village in the GDR whose inhabitants were forced to move in order to make room for one of that former country’s largest uranium mines.  Seiler’s poem about this abandoned place is chilling:

in the evening the sheep go rusty
over the wasted land, birds
as if snowed therein & darkened…

only under the rubble
the farmyards are still warm.  the spoons
there by the spoons, the polish
by the boots & that little door
to the boot-room which moves you
to tears…

As always, Seagull Books has brought into English translation a fascinating collection of poetry.  I had the opportunity to interview Alexander Booth, the translator of this collection which can be read here.

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Morning, Paramin by Derek Walcott and Peter Doig

This beautiful collection of poetry and art is a collaboration between the Nobel award winning poet Derek Walcott and landscape painter Peter Doig.  Fifty of Doig’s inspiring paintings are presented in full color with a corresponding poem written by Walcott on the facing page.  The poet was born and raised in St. Lucia in the West Indies and resided there up until his recent death; Doig was born in Scotland, lived in Canada and England and since 2002 has lived in Trinidad. Doig is considered one of the most successful, living figurative painters  A love for the Caribbean—its landscapes, its people, its history, is evident in this collaboration. In the “Dedication” Walcott writes to Doig about his island:

hot beaches you never put your feet on,
the wisdom you get from water-bearded rocks—
they’re yours: those scenes I knew in my green years
with a young man’s joy at Choc, at Blanchisseuse.

But the themes in their art also extend well beyond their beloved island home and include reflections on love, mourning, aging and the ordinary pleasures of everyday life. Walcott’s poems are not literal interpretations of the scenes and figures in Doig’s paintings.  Sometimes he does comment on a particular detail of a painting, but more often than not they are meditations, memories and thoughts inspired by Doig’s art.  What we are reading is Walcott’s reactions to the poems that are not, in any way, meant to be the authoritative interpretation of the paintings;  the poems can certainly gives us unexpected ways to view the paintings through the eyes of another artist, but Walcott leaves room for each viewer and reader to add his or her own interpretations.

The first part of the book includes several landscape paintings which cause Walcott to recall scenes of winter and snowfall.  Although such weather is very different from his home in St. Lucia, he finds a sudden and unexpected comfort and serenity in a snowfall. In “Ski Jacket” Walcott writes:

Ski Jacket

In stricken winter, its melancholy sticks,
the soul is blurred, direction hard to find,
the snowbound roads repeat their cheap effects
and to the snow we might as well be blind.
But sometimes from the welter there appear
things that take definition from the snow
in blinding layout, branches, trees and poles
and windows and window frames, sharp and clear
and packed with heat, a refuge for our souls.

And in “The Architect’s Home in the Ravine” the poet reflects:

The Architect’s Home in the Ravine

The snow starts piling up from the first word
and piles in chapters and is never heard;
behind the foaming drifts there is a house
with scratchy window panes, steadily assessing
its value as a house, we don’t know whose
still in its sure solidity a blessing.
Why don’t we wait until the snow is finished
the scratching storm stopped, to assess ourselves,
to see that our delight is undiminished
in this house that hid our secrets as a boy
both by the storm’s ferocity and joy?

I found it striking that Walcott oftentimes addresses Doig directly, especially when he is making observations about art. In  the poem facing “Metropolitan” (House of Pictures) Walcott speaks to his friend:

Metropolitan

What’s said here is how poverty and art
thrive, but always separately; what Peter Doig catches
is distance. It is the distance of the heart
from what it cannot own, and old, old tune
hummed by the critic with his scarf and patches.

There are too many themes, images and thoughts to fully capture the depth and beauty of this collaboration. But there is one more image worthy of note which keeps reappearing to Walcott through Doig’s poems, that of his deceased second wife who died in 2014 whom he still misses.  In “The Heart of Old San Juan” he specifically mentions her by name as every street in this city is a reminder of her presence:

In the Heart of Old San Juan

To me, the waking day is Margaret:
down every street, every street corner
the boulevards brilliant, with one regret;
every memory is now a mourner.

The poem “Paramin” is beautiful but I found the loving words about his wife and his home to be a strange contrast when compared to Doig’s untitled painting that inspired this poem.  I wonder which aspects of Doig’s piece, with the dark greens and blues in the background and the elongated, male figure in the foreground reminded him of Paramin and his wife?  Walcott writes:

Untitled

The name said by itself could make us laugh
as if some deep, deep secret was hidden there.
I see it through crossing tree trunks framed with love
and she is gone but the hill is still there
and when I join her it will be Paramin
for both of us and the children, the mountain air
and music with no hint of what the name could mean,
rocking gently by itself, “Paramin,” “Paramin.”

The last few lines are especially haunting since Walcott himself passed away so recently. For those who have never read his poetry, this beautiful book is a great starting point to experience his poetry. When I read Omeros, his epic poem based on Homer, I was completely captivated by his work and this book was a reminder for me of his intelligent, emotional, raw and striking poetry.

 

 

 

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My Reading List for Poetry Month

Since April is poetry month I thought I would share a few of the poetry collections that I intend to read and write about this month.

I have two poetry books from my favorite small press, Seagull Books.  The first is a collection entitled in field Latin by German author Lutz Seiler and translated by Alexander Booth.  Seiler grew up in the former East Germany and his poetry is full of images that deal with the borders and boundaries of landscapes.

Things that Happen and Other Poems by the Bengali poet Bhaskar Chakrabarti , also published by Seagull Books, has been translated by Arunava Sinha. A deep sense of melancholy pervades Chakrabarti’s poems.

I am especially looking forward to the collection of poetry entitled 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution. This volume was edited by Boris Dralyuk whom I had the great fortune to interview about his translation of Odessa Stories.

I also have a collection of poetry from Ugly Duckling Presse entitled The Happy End/All Welcome by Monica de la Torre. The setting for these poems is a job fair by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma from Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika. So far I have found the first few poems to be both clever and witty.

Finally, I intend to read Dante’s The New Life translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti which was reissued by The New York Review of Books Poetry. I have not taken the time to read any Dante in quite a while so I am particularly looking forward to reading this work.

What is everyone else reading for poetry month?

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Filed under German Literature, Italian Literature, New York Review of Books Poetry, Poetry, Pushkin Press, Russian Literature, Seagull Books

Review: Written in the Dark—Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad

My Review:
written-in-the-darkThe official, state sponsored view of the Siege of Leningrad was one of heroism and valor and any piece of writing whether it be fiction, non-fiction or poetry that did not align with the Soviet vision of the Siege was suppressed.  The dark and shocking works of the five poets in this collection were written in secret and not uncovered or published until many years after the war and after the fall of the Soviet Union.  The Nazi siege of this Russian city lasted from September 1941 until January of 1944 with an estimated death toll reaching nearly 1,000,000 lives.  The Soviet Union propogated a version of this event that portrayed stoic Russians valiantly enduring the long, German offensive;  the brutality and horror that occurred in the city were buried with those who died during the Siege.  In the introduction to the collection, Polina Barskova writes about the official, state approved, Soviet poetry that was allowed to be published about the Siege:

The “exemplary” Siege self presented to the world in this kind of literature was that of the stoic Soviet soldier.  Even women, children and the elderly were depicted as warriors and likened to the city’s monuments —carved of marble and decorated with gold.  It is these ubiquitous monuments that told, as I recall from my Leningrad childhood, the retouched story of the Siege—filled with hypocritical pathos and barren of the horrific truth.  The truth, however, does emerge, sooner or later.

During the era of perestroika, poetry that was written during the Siege and suppressed by the Soviet regime began to emerge and to give the world a more accurate glimpse into the suffering and death that was thrust upon this city during World War II.  The poets in this collection include Gennady Gor (1907-1981), the artist and film set director Pavel Zaltsman (1912-1985), the philologist Dmitry Maximov (1904-1987), the avant-garde painter Vladimir Sterligov (1904-1973), and the poet-philologist Sergey Rudakov (1909-1944).

The most brutally shocking poems in the book are written by Gennady Gor who became a well-known scholar, science fiction writer and collector of the art of Northern ethnicities when the war was over.  There is an emphasis throughout his poems on cannibalism which is believed to have been widely practiced during the height of the Siege. Even carrion birds are deprived of any meals because there simply is nothing left:

I ate Rebecca the girl full of laughter
A raven looked down at my hideous dinner.
A raven looked down at me like at boredom.
At hwo slowly this human was eating that human.
A raven looked down but it was for nothing.
I didn’t throw it that arm of Rebecca.

Lenigraders on Nevsky Prospect during the Siege, 1942. RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov via Wikimedia Commons

Lenigraders on Nevsky Prospect during the Siege, 1942. RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov via Wikimedia Commons

Gor’s poems are obsessed with rotting and cold body parts, even when they are not being eaten.  His emphasis on descriptions of  body parts evokes the images of citizens lying in the streets, completely forgotten. His description of the pervading darkness reminds us of the black nights endured by the citizens because they were constantly under attack by the Germans. Even the moon is not welcome under these horrendous circumstances. Gor reveals the mental and emotional toll that this Siege took on its survivors, which stark details were forbidden to be written about in the official, Soviet poetry:

With a shock wave in my ears,
A cold moon in my soul,
I am a shot to insanity. I am both
Check and mate to myself. I am mute. Now I
Am nothing and running toward nothing.
Now I am no one’s and rushing to no one.
A shock wave in my mouth,
A cold moon in my dark,
A leg in my corner, an arm in my ditch,
The eyes that fell out of my sockets,
A finger forgotten in one of the clinics,
An unneeded moon in my dark.

After reading Vladimir Stergilov’s poems I was stunned that this man could not only survive the Siege, but also serve at the Leningrad Front, and then after the war return to this city where he became a successful artist in the underground, unofficial, avant-garde world of art.  One wonders how could a man who wrote this poem go on after these experiences:

Raised a spoon to your lips—Death
Stretched out your hand to hello—Death
Saw a little goldfinch—Death
On the branch of a little leaf—Death
On a walk with your friends—Death
Looked at the cabbage on the plate—Death
Seeing your friends off, two of them—Death
Happened to glance to the side—Death.

Stergilov’s use of epistrophe with the word “Death” underscores the sheer terror that hovers over the most mundane, daily activities like eating or greeting a friend or walking in the park.

One final poet in the collection that stands out is Sergey Rudakov who elevates the themes of his poetry to encompass the larger event that is the destruction of Leningrad,  a once proud and prosperous stronghold of the Russian state.  He is the only one of these five poets who mentions his native city repeatedly in his Siege poems. In this first excerpt there is a feeling of nostalgia for his beloved city which is no longer recognizable to him:

The poor heart is both happy and unhappy
To recognize in searchlight crosses, to the west,
The native sky of Leningrad.

In the next poem in which he mentions the city there is an emphasis on the wasteland that  his city has become with its empty apartments, streets and shops:

In the wasteland of Leningrad
Clocks still tell time somewhere.
But do not trust their wheels’ gait
Nor the arc of their springs.
Blind Charon keeps idle:
There are no normal burials.

RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov via Wikimedia Commons

Leningraders on Nevsky Prospect during the Siege, 1942. RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov via Wikimedia Commons

And in one final poem he uses the city’s former name, perhaps in an attempt to remember what a great city it once was before the Germans invaded. There is also an emphasis in this poem on the scores of unburied dead that were strewn on the city streets:
x

…In those far off years
Which future grandchildren
Will never come to know
In pale accounts of science,
Those days immemorial
Were lost in dreadful frosts.
In makeshift huts, the futile fires
Warmed soups of glue
And glucose for the living.
The dead outnumbered coffins.
The rout of Petersburg abandoned
Without a burial their own.

As difficult as these poems are to read, they are a reminder of the remarkable resiliency of the human spirit.  Rudakov aptly writes that future grandchildren will not come to know the true brutality of the Siege because as time slips by, so do our memories fade.  Our minds, our hearts, our souls have the greatest capacity to overcome the most unspeakable tragedies; this collection of poems puts into perspective the seemingly trivial problems that we might have on a day to day basis—trivial, at least, in comparison to surviving the Siege of Leningrad.

For more information on each of the authors of the collection as well as the editor visit Ugly Duckling Presse.

 

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