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Mónica de la Torre’s new book, The Happy End / All Welcome, is expansive, inventive, and often hilarious.
The Happy End / All Welcome
Mónica de la Torre
Ugly Duckling Presse, $17 (paper)
Mónica de la Torre’s new book, The Happy End / All Welcome, reinvents that rarest of poetic subjects: the job fair. Its prefatory note presents the book as a response to German artist Martin Kippenberger’s The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika” (1994), a large-scale sculptural work consisting of “an assortment of numbered tables and office desks with pairs of mismatched chairs within a soccer field flanked by grandstands.” Widely considered Kippenberger’s masterpiece, the installation is itself a reconceiving of the enormous job fair hosted by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma in the final chapter of Franz Kafka’s (characteristically) unfinished novel Amerika, which Kippenberger claimed never to have read. Thus de la Torre puts the reader in a position (even before we read the first poem) to think back to the book’s sources and about what a source is, to consider the nature of a referential remove and to ask what effect, if any, such a layered accrual of removals has on our experience of a text. We also might ask what it means to refer back to something with the ontological wispiness of the open-ended—open-ended because unfinished, like the novel, or else undefined, like the job fair in the novel, said to be so expansive that no one knows where it ends.
The achievement of The Happy End / All Welcome might be how far it goes to make institutional critique inextricable from representation of subjectivity.
De la Torre’s book-length fantasia on themes such as these (and others) is likewise expansive and inclusive. We encounter in The Happy End / All Welcome an unusual variety of familiar and unfamiliar chair types and odd job interviews and application processes. The poems take the forms of questionnaires, self-aware ad copies about the book itself, and typing and rapid reading tests, to name a few. The Happy End / All Welcome has no table of contents, which emphasizes the way that the book is meant to be walked through with no sense beforehand of what lies ahead. De la Torre has produced a wild deadpan blitz, but for all its conceptual attitudes, it would be a mistake to overlook the humanist core of her enterprise, which is to form counteroffers to capitalism’s destructive procedures and habits of minds. It is to this end that de la Torre subverts recognizable form, reorienting the performance of author, voice, and utterance in a way that constitutes an extraordinary striking of our usual lyric sets.
Part ekphrasis, part theatrical production, de la Torre’s book stages often hilarious exchanges. Part of her gift as a writer is comedic timing, manipulating recognizable situations and the vocabulary they provide to release minor affects such as frustration, annoyance, skepticism, and embarrassment. Take “Table 20,” the first job interview in the book:
If you can see what you can’t see, does that
mean you’re seeing it?
I see shapes, not edges.
Astigmatism, you mean?
Nothing I can’t just ignore.
There you go, getting everything confused again.
The opening paradox unfolds in puns, double meanings, double negatives. The poem’s comedy is sly, working on the discrepancy between the waffling of the applicant and the position in question—one that requires an ability to recognize warning signs and distress signals and to intervene with direct action. In a nod to Kafka’s awkward and equivocating protagonist, the Aspiring Lifeguard’s evasiveness wears the Bather’s nerve thin:
Do you trust your other senses?
It depends on where I’m sitting.
Do you want the position or not?
These personae can never be confused with a typical lyric speaker; no straightforward lyrical “I” appears in the book—instead, interiority is displaced, and made to speak in different masks and appropriated tongues. The interview pairings are giddy, delightful: a caterer and a line cook (“I’m a believer in readymade flavor”), a Human Resources Manager and “a candidate for the position of Armchair Psychologist or Pop Freudianist,” a Company Manager and a Consultant (“the rule of thumb is: Shun primitive behavior, welcome primitive impulses”), and an Artistic Director and an applicant who identifies as “a very strategic, enterprising procrastinator.” The mask is always one of many—a role taken on in the felt presence of a choral company.
What these various characters share is their positions as performers of tasks. In “View from an Aeron Chair,” the office chair becomes the occasion for a contemplation of the simple act of sitting:
The sky’s changeups are reminders
that this will not drag on forever, despite
the ergonomic ease afforded by the seat
first devised for geriatric care, then stripped down.
It’d seem rational: if the elderly spent
their days in recliners, so could others,
dotcommers, say, properly incentivized.
Observing how the young and old alike spend their time in passive positions in chairs, either because of bodily need or because of a desk job, the poem notes the devouring nature of capitalism. “We will be priced out of any arena,” the poem continues:
. . . we’ll come to realize
the sense in having new places to leave.
This is the chair’s democracy.
Particularly this one, with its form-fitting mesh
forsaking foam and padding,
which cause overheating and cloud
the sitter’s judgment.
It’s recyclable, and that matters.
The irony is pitch perfect in the poem’s closing one-liner: “Still, the office chair’s revolution is an oxymoron.” The book does not offer a direct vision of what a political revolution would be, but rather animates all sorts of strategies of daily resistance, such as wasting corporate time or redirecting company resources for personal non-profitable tasks. As one poem puts it, “It may be as simple a matter as a secretary’s writing a love letter on ‘company time.’”
Part ekphrasis, part theatrical production, Mónica de la Torre’s book stages often hilarious exchanges.
The inability to imagine a different future is part of the humor and gravity of the everyday drama of this, and our, world. Neither jobseeker nor manager can extricate themselves from the system that offers dead-end jobs, nor do they necessarily even want to. By way of example: “Career Track” offers, in a curiously friendly way, a series of questions that aim to assess the reader’s feelings about office work: “Did you start quietly at the very bottom and try to work your way up bit by bit?” “Did you start at an age in which the more advanced of your peers were almost ready to move on to better jobs?” The poem ends with an outline of the ideal job where you “might one day sit as a worker at your desk and look out of your open window with no worries, for a while.” That we can identify this boring desk job as potentially dreamy becomes part of the book’s irony, and part of its repurposing of ready-made picturesque images.
The achievement of The Happy End / All Welcome might be how far it goes to make institutional critique inextricable from representation of subjectivity. The poems draw on aural and visual dimensions to make us play along—at “Table 21,” the scene has been vacated. We do not encounter an exchange between typist and a test-giver, just the typing test itself, errors and all:
To give your [sales] letters cgaracter, you should: take a personal attitude, adapt your letter to the reader’s background, education or station in life; keep your temper; avoid sarcasm or witticisms; remind rather than instryct. Or, you can fgoret about these five points and summarize the principles into: “Be sincere.” (1020 strokes–4’, 28”)
The stumbling of fingers on a keyboard performs an unmistakable sincerity. Clearly, the directive to “be sincere”—consummately personal and polished—is so manufactured as to make sincerity a virtual impossibility. It is a paradoxical position, one that applies to the workplace but also outside as well. As one of the four self-referential poems called “Ad Copy” puts it:
The girls in The Happy End / All Welcome make up a cast of recognizable characters, all ventriloquizing advertising copy and striving to be unique and desirable. Each gets their soliloquy: pinup secretaries, gamines, vamps, aspiring starlets, celebrity lookalikes, fashion hounds, compulsive eyebrow pluckers, shoe fetishists, thrift-store junkies, post-hippie hobos, and even ladies-who-lunch.
It is quite a list. Moreover: “Each [girl] rehearses a persona, offering a tenderly sardonic look at the art of fashioning oneself.” This bitter position is central to de la Torre’s poetics, and her critique—the way that a workplace, and the larger social world, can put us in reactive positions. We perform in an underlying economy.
Of course, the problem of institutional critique, at least in an art historical context, is that the mighty institution (i.e., a museum) tends to absorb (display, document, archive, etc.) the artwork that critiques it. Part of the way de la Torre responds to this problem is by constructing a constant winking presence of self-awareness. Another “Ad Copy” describes the book as “self-documenting,” and “self-recording craze, preemptive of its own critique.” Another adds:
The customer is always right and let the latest installment of the polyphonic, sprawling The Happy End / All Welcome be the proof of the pudding. No longer the passive, voiceless victims of draconian capitalist forces, consumer culture allows us to exercise the subjectivity we’ve been granted via interpolation (see Barbara Kruger’s “I shop therefore I am”) by talking back to the machine. 
De la Torre’s omnivorous vision can absorb any material: found language, contemporary art references, academic glossing (“polyphonic” “interpolation”). The poem “View from a Folding Chair,” one of the most striking poems in the collection, takes this devouring nature to its extreme, turning the occasion of sitting around to an almost annihilated point. The poem uses a list structure to pull out all the funny qualities and happenstance positions of the plastic folding chairs that appear at public events, auditoriums, wherever entertainment and attention are sold. Comedic wryness ensues: “Rarely will it hold the sitter captive. Its precariousness invites walkouts, even when the seat is secured by an admittance fee.” The view from the chair then becomes strange:
Irreverent, whether in an institutional setting or not, signaling
Possibly carnivalesque, displaying an upside-down world as in:
a projection of the high-desert landscape and transit
surrounding an old ice plant in the desert
requiring no other technology but a lens and a dark room;
ironically inverted in this picture of a tiny fraction of the
with no search engine logo and copyright date camouflaged
to appear like a wisp of a stratus cloud—
The list offers us “moving images to experience, but not keep.” Progressing in its world-rotating perspective, folding chairs are “unsung, stacked, piled against the wall, or hidden in closets,” and “will be counted on again since, plastic palace people, they’re both transience and ritual.” The future tense here is important. The poem ends ominously, almost like a prophecy: “Welcome into the fold. Who cares what the future brings.” This tonal shift is extraordinary, and thrilling, because it signals both a kind of sneer and a total detachment—the question is a statement, an indictment of the capitalist paradigm where spectators find continual incentive and reward for passivity.
The Happy End / All Welcome shares some of the framing and appropriation-based strategies of Latin American writers such as Juan Luis Martínez and Ulises Carrión.
The ominousness of “View from a Folding Chair” and the book’s sprawling miscellany are not merely a coincidence. In terms of lineage, The Happy End / All Welcome shares some of the framing and appropriation-based strategies of Latin American writers such as Juan Luis Martínez and Ulises Carrión. It also bears a fascinating resemblance to the prophetic books of Hebrew prophets (see Thomas Jemielity’s 1992 Satire and the Hebrew Prophets). These prophetic books took the form of hodgepodge assemblage: lists, prayers, parables, apocalyptic announcements, riddles, dialogues, monologues, predictions, and more. De la Torre’s book offers comparable instances of these forms. Take “View from a Folding Chair”—with its list structure and chilling open-endedness, we can call it an anti-prayer. Or take the word scramble, offered without comment at “Table 28”: “IDHSELZ // PFMORRE // UTNTLIO // BNAAANS.” Or the job posting in “Seeking” that calls for “Naturopaths to cure nonspecific symptoms. / Group polarizers. / Encryptors and motivational speakers / to attack The Hostile Network, form mesh-like others.” At “Table 45,” we encounter an app in development for users “to log dreams that might eventually be reenacted,” and the five “Case Study” poems that follow are sample dreams, all based in different kinds of dread, including one that features “a baker’s stall displaying hearty-looking loaves with reliefs of words on them.”
The subject tries to read one: it could say either PAN or PAIN, but the loaf is cut
in half and only a portion of the word is legible. The next day the subject goes back to the
market, and asks the baker what a new loaf says. He answers it spells HUNGER. Or was
it HOMBRE, or HAMBRE? The subject cannot recall.
Each of the dreams has an eerie urgency to it that relates to some larger question—here, it is about the slippage, linguistic and otherwise, between man (hombre) and hunger (hambre). What these poems have in common is that their wit is a response to a crisis of social structure. As noted by the Furniture Tester at the end of “View from a Monobloc Chair”: “It seems like yesterday when she spotted a couple of Monoblocs at a table where the people had left signs of preferring Scrabble over texting or browsing the internet while sitting around.” In the way this and other poems here call out distraction and disconnection, they possess a reparative edge. De la Torre is obsessed with leisure time and workplace environment, with the objects of the administered world as they condition human intimacy.
De la Torre’s inclusive poetics is all about sharing the stage, as shown by this book’s vast cast of ventriloquized characters. This sense of collectivity, of collectively implicated displaced persons, manifests in a wide and vivid range, from worried job applicants whose “English is not very well” to the Furniture Tester who “goes on sitting in uncomfortable chairs.” The other collective presence in the book is the hosts of the job fair, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, a.k.a. “The Company,” who open and close the book. In the final poem, hilariously named, “OK, This Is It,” the Company acknowledges the absurdity of all that has occurred:
We cannot tell you what it is because we don’t have a definition for it.
Defining it would be as ludicrous as attempting to list the attributes of cloud formations worth looking at. While busying ourselves with enumerating them, the shapes would’ve already changed.
You might be thinking, Why not take pictures then? Surely they would come in handy!
Our reply, “Yes, flatten and section the sky into rectangles! And throw in the earth as well!”
The Company’s disdain for this classic poetic symbol and leisure activity serves as a launching point to articulate what the Company finds worth their time. “See, for us, it could be objects. / Odd chairs. / An egg or a dream. / Pictures on canvas or screens.” The air of summary is made crisp by clarification of the method: “We followed contradictions and our intuition (carefully calibrating randomness.)” The book has done more than that, however. De la Torre has given us a vital work by creating a structure that does not prioritize the single vexed lyric speaker but instead accommodates a range of pointed voices; by displacing the expressive voice in a way that expresses the bitter pull of our dread and the range of our laughter; by calling attention to the mechanisms by which we speak—as well as write and read—and by which we give credence. Her achievement is this brilliantly irresistible provocative body of work. The Happy End / All Welcome repackages the logically organized methods and madness of our time.
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