BooksWeekend

Mónica de la Torre’s Poems Reimagine an Iconic Martin Kippenberger Artwork

In these enigmatic poems, de la Torre’s mode of direct address seeks to put the reader into a trance.

Mónica de la Torre’s sixth book of poetry, The Happy End/All Welcome, begins by declaring itself to be “after” Martin Kippenberger’s The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika” (1994), an installation of mismatched office furniture assembled on a soccer field for the purpose of conducting job interviews. It’s an intriguing strategy. “After,” in this sense, implies time, open influence, and, by extension, the possibility of transformation. This frees de la Torre, a translator and art writer as well as a poet, to write her way out of Kippenberger’s installation – itself a riff off of a mass job fair near the end of Kafka’s unfinished novel – rather than into it, and to create a different tonal terrain for her work: one that uses the grammar of certainty to slowly unravel and ultimately rewire one’s sense of orientation as a reader. She pitches changeup after deadpan changeup early on, mimicking the fantasy-logic of various types of business rhetoric while weaving together a stranger, irreducible structure.

“Positions Available,” the book’s first poem, is a list of exclamatory welcoming announcements from “The Company” that invite interested persons who either are or wish to become artists to join up. The distinction between being and becoming serves to divide the pool into those presently and potentially available before the perspective of The Company recedes into an array of serial, if irregularly appearing, forms: tables; case studies; questionnaires; views from various models of chair; fragments of ad copy; strategy statements; and job descriptions. The language deployed in these forms synthesizes business policy jargon, art-speak, batty instructions, dream descriptions, and over-exuberant promo copy, delivered largely in the mode of direct address, as well as a conversational diction that might best be described as the observations of the lost, as in “Table 20,” which consists of a Bather interviewing an Aspiring Lifeguard:

Bather: If you avert your eyes from something your/eyes can’t help but see, are you seeing it or/not?

Aspiring Lifeguard: I see a nesting table in the distance. Table/or tables? My vision is blurry at all distances./My corneas have flat and steep areas;/likewise my mind.

The contrast between willful and physical manifestations of myopia, discussed by figures who seem to emerge unannounced from a painting and do not reappear later, is presented as a form of job interview, which ends with the bather asking if the sensory-deprived lifeguard wants the job or not. “Table 20” is immediately followed by a poem called “View from an Aeron Chair,” in which de la Torre alters her diction to create a faux-reflective tone that toys with description while selling the chair’s perspective:

A half-view of greenery, cut off by blinds.
Pinecones hanging in pairs, like testicles.
Brain balls, someone once said at a pool.
We were in it, looking up at a guy getting out.
This angle replicates that one, but the view
is more animated, less peopled.

De la Torre’s poems aim for immediacy, often beginning mid-action or mid-description, while adopting a tenor of straight-ahead familiarity, no matter how jarring or ridiculous what’s actually being said might be – and there is a sly range of diction quietly at work throughout. “The Company,” which is never quite given a particular structure other than its voice, registers as polyvocal, teetering on the edge of competence, and happy to assimilate the idiosyncratic, the foreign, the resistant. Midway through the book The Company is no longer a tangible presence, having dissolved into forms and positions (“Furniture Tester,” “Guerilla Advertiser,” “Seeking”) that substitute any sense of continuous ground perceivable at the book’s outset for a succession of retractable foregrounds, ranging from generic office building plaza to the streets of Mexico City, where a “translation task force” is conducting a light espionage operation. What is particularly enigmatic, and engrossing, about this work is the way de la Torre’s mode of address functions as a surface that attempts to put the reader/job-seeker/artist into a trance. One feels turned away from while being spoken to directly, and nonetheless compelled to continue while a rueful form of emotional complexity develops.

Layers of critique are implied throughout the poems, which focus largely on the dissolution of previously critiqued workplace conventions so as to create new, freer conventions within which “human performers” (as opposed to “workers”) might function more happily. Yet much of the pleasure of The Happy End/All Welcome stems from de la Torre’s refusal to let the book settle into any type of poetic category or sub-genre. The language comes from many sources, some of which are noted in the book’s acknowledgements, but the material points outward to the triangulation of lived experience, employment fantasies, and modes of migration, rather than back to its origins. At another point in the book a set of case studies turns out to be dream recollections infused with horror and humor, further unsettling the notion of what, exactly, a subject might be in this work. And implication is recognized near the end of the book as a diminished strategy of self-awareness in one of several pieces titled “Ad Copy”:

The mantra of The Happy End / All Welcome might be that slapstick speaks louder than words, the work imploding with what it implies.

While the surface of these lines puts a measure of despondency on display, I don’t take the book, finally, as fatalistic. When the sentence, “The most common transaction in the city is the exchange of memories,” appears, it feels less like a moment of common satire and more a moment of lateral pathos, the word “transaction” bearing the weight of fate while “memories” takes on the possibility of an underground, however remote. Maybe that’s why the book – grappling with an ambiguous “We”’s inability to define whatever “it” might be – stops at its end rather than concluding. Further definition closes all the doors.

The Happy End/All Welcome (2017) by Mónica de la Torre, published by Ugly Duckling Presse, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

 

 

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