Xcp: Cross-Cultural Poetics 19 (2008)
Review Essay by Joel Bettridge
Rachel Zolf’s new book of poems, Human Resources, enters the tradition of innovative poets writing about Capital by joining it with her exploration of what it means to occupy a lyric subject in our own cultural moment. The book—through its use of poetry generating programs, corporate instructions for writers, and word database lists—fashions a subject recognizable to us, one that is multiple and shaped by the IMF, the WTO, and our personal, unavoidable shopping and employment conditions. And yet, while the lyrical agency in Human Resources emerges from the piles of printed and electronic materials that stuff the desks and hard drives in thousands of glass-encased skyscrapers, the book does not take the constructed quality of the agency it depicts as a definitive insight. Instead of foregrounding slips in meaning and the linguistic, economically determined nature of our own lives, the poems in Human Resources take these features of language and human agency as given and attempt to forge a readable subjectivity from them. Zolf generates this interpretable lyrical experience within the operating environment of Capital by composing a poetic line that does not register as deliberately disjunctive. Her lines read as if they are attempting to cohere, even as they end up multiplying their meanings, morphing, and contradicting themselves—the Cantos as they worked out, not as Pound would have had them.
On the level of syntax, and inline with the innovative tradition of which the book takes part, this effect works out largely as a formal struggle between a line’s drive toward meaning and moments of linguistic uncertainty. Mid-way through the book we get a page that reads:
You try to pare her page to pitch but words respond
using ‘my’ voice treading new waters.
We have to put our heads together ‘live’ beneath the
veneer of the homepage once we get this backload
under our belts.
I believe content owners ‘absolutely need to know’
intuitive acronym synergy thrust the shuffle of volume.
This isn’t a ‘hill to die on’ we’ve done soft launches
Three breaks in meaning appear most immediately to my eye. The first occurs in the second stanza where the emotional resonance remains ambiguous: the “veneer of the homepage” under which “we” live sounds ominous and knowingly repressed by corporate life, and yet, the cliché heavy phrases in these lines—putting “our heads together” and getting work “under our belts”— strikes a decidedly unself-reflexive note. The second moment of textual ambiguity happens in the second line of the third stanza, where it is not exactly clear how an acronym could be “intuitive,” let alone how it could have “synergy” and “thrust,” acronyms being as they are awkward, often absurd and regularly a meaningless arrangement of letters to anyone not already instructed in their referential purpose. Third, the language of the first-person speaker, presumably a webpage designer, highlights the incoherence of authorship in a corporate marketplace. In all four stanzas we hear the voice of an editor/author and the voice of a project manager. Combining these roles moves readers into logic of advertising, where writers and editors clarify and parse language down, not in order to provide information or shed light on an idea, but in hopes of compelling action—shopping, coveting, succumbing to impulse—action made most likely when the cultural values actually for sale are disguised behind a consumer good. As readers move through these lines they gain a vague sense of the writer’s desire for the copy she writes, along with the emotional stress such writing initiates, but no clear subject emerges—just a list of her anxieties.
But the various uncertainties in meaning that these lines court are pressed on all sides by lines working against a hollowing out of language’s communicative function. Take, for example, the last stanza: “This isn’t a ‘hill to die on’ we’ve done soft launches / before.” In these lines we get multiple associations at once. First, we see the language of project management (the “soft launch” where a website is implemented in stages) combined with the language of warfare (the “‘hill to die on’”). Here the poem reminds readers of the psychologically deadening social violence of the business word even at it recoils from the business school graduate who would invite such a comparison; economic violence thus materializes as emotionally brutal as warfare, and the competitive spirit in which businesses run their projects like wars appears complicit in the former. Consequently, the truism that business is a war pushes to the foreground the manner in which corporate language systems strip words of any significant meaning in their attempt to control their environments and market their products.
At the same time, a reader cannot help but feel a degree of empathy for the group of people attempting to get the website up and running. The first-person speaker who talks to the “we” and “you” in the poem creates a recognizably personal tone, a resonance intensified by the apparent heavy workload these individuals face (seen in the attempt to get the “pitch” right, the “backload” of the second stanza, and the pressure of undertaking the “soft launch”). Despite the alienating affect of the commercial space depicted, then, readers can easily imagine the people implied in these lines as they rush, stress-addled to complete a webpage they certainly don’t care about in order to make a living (a tone made manifest by language that focuses on getting the website done for customers as opposed to phrases that suggest a group of individuals pursuing their own shared project). This mixing of alienation and empathy creates a textual environment in which readers can explore emotionally and intellectually rich associations and cultural insights—no one single lesson about economics dominates. Rather, a way of humanizing and responding to our social spaces determined by Capital becomes the focus of the book’s poetic drive. In other words, Human Resources attempts to make meaning with the language we have at hand, a language that is admittedly impoverished by the economic systems in which we live, but available to reinterpretation and more personal, as opposed to corporate, employment. The book itself stands as a testament to such an ambition; while we never transcend our economic environments, lives that forge alterative value systems—say, a life in poetry—remain possible. You have to have a job, but you can still write poems. And no matter how limited, such activity, to translate Thoreau into our own time, creates space to think and live more deliberately.
None of this is to say, however, that Human Resources is engaged in some utopian dream of dialectical materialism. Even as it creates space for optimism, a place for words to function meaningfully, the book still ties its concern for lyrical agency to linguistic and physical violence, forms of injury it examines through a series of instruction poems and an attention to postholocaust Jewish identity and sexual difference. Throughout the book Zolf places poems titled variously, “How to warm up your mental motor and find your Big Idea,” “How to write a title,” “Where to look for inspiration,” “How to write persuasive body copy,” “How to make a name,” “Ingredients of a winning visual identity,” and “How to write for the Internet.” These labels stand to the left side of a list of instructions for carrying out the named task. In bullet point, beside “How to warm up your mental motor and find your Big Idea,” and following the encouraging phrase “Ask yourself:” are four questions: “What is my prospect’s problem? / What pain does the prospect want to avoid? / What is the Unique Selling Promise (USP) of this / product? / What do I need to say to keep the prospect reading?” Most obviously these questions reveal the alienating condition of consumers; their “pain” becomes generic, just another means to be hooked and “kept reading.” More striking to me though is the way in which this poem operates as an instruction to the reader, whom the poem puts in the position of writing the ad copy. Intensifying its move to have readers empathize with the works in the above cited poem, Human Resources here asks readers to think about other people like “prospects,” merely a means to an end, consumers whose primary purpose is to buy more goods. In part, readers can see clearly the dehumanizing effect of capitalism, but I don’t think we can too easily say that Human Resources is pointing at such language from a distance inasmuch as the book asks readers to experience this language from the inside out. Just for a moment, readers find themselves on the active side of Capital’s abuse of language; inside the logic of the poem they are asked to think about what it would take to produce words empty of value, meant only to forward the urge to consume.
To this recognition of multiple forms of social violence Human Resources regularly articulates a troubled relationship to its own project, as in the lines, “Ensconced in the academy pleasuring in the / beautiful excess of the unshackled referent, poetry can’t / stock food banks, warm bodies or stop genocide from / affecting my RSP.” Not only does the book give voice to the familiar critique that poetry does not make anything happen, and allow room for the critique of radical poetic practice as overly-intellectualized, it more profoundly articulates the discomforting connection between terrifying forms of social violence, global capitalism, and one’s own security, at least for citizens of Western, developed countries. The final lines linking genocide to “my RSP” (Canada’s retirement savings account, called a Registered Retirement Savings Plan) utter our secret, and ethically troubling, fear that genocide in presumably far away countries might disturb our savings and investment strategies. They also lay plan the reality that our physical, real-life survival depends on economic, political realities we might very well abhor. And it is in this moment of absolute impasse that Human Resources reserves a place for the necessity of radical poetics and its ability to help us think more deliberately about cultural realties and through our new forms of agency. In her attention to same-sex desire and Jewish identity as they occur in the early twenty-first century, Zolf confronts readers with a self already formed by the demands of the marketplace, but uses her book’s poetic structure and dense cultural references to keep this self open to more complicated forms of identity. She does so by affirming the necessity of local pressures and larger histories, both of which, while dispensing with the illusion that people can determine for themselves who they are outside the social realities in which they live, give readers the cultural materials necessary for considering how they might manufacture alternative forms of agency within their limited circumstances. Running through Human Resources are lines like, “Except the word ‘Jew.’ Say it sixty sixty sixt six ty million / million i’m the million mazda man six million mazda / times will not exhaust meaning” and “A multi-sexed academic friend calls our libidinal desire / around knowledge masochistic —they’d prefer a ‘softer’ / approach to flesh out the whole picture.” In the first lines there is dense mix of cultural associations: first, the stuttering, near-chant of the six million Jews killed in the holocaust, then the odd word “mazda,” which invokes a number of possible meanings, including the automobile made in Japan, the bombing of Hiroshima (where the car is manufactured) by the United States, and the central divinity, “Ahura Mazda,” of the Zoroastrian faith, which like Judaism, is an ancient monotheism that emerged in the middle east. It is also impossible not to hear a reference to the “Six Million Dollar Man,” the television show for the 1970s. In the second example, we see the possibility for more than two forms of sexual identity, references to Freudian vocabulary (“libidinal” and “masochistic”), and the academy in its complicated social networks and production and marketing of “knowledge.”
In both cases these lines make plain the burden of having a self that does not belong to oneself, a self that takes shape in the language and history in which it is immersed. But although each set of lines articulates the experience of being a subject formed by a complex array of social, cultural, economic and historical narratives, they do not interpret these histories for readers. It is impossible to disconnect Jewish identity from the holocaust, or American identity from the atom bomb or popular forms of entertainment. It seems unlikely that academics who think about and live with the realities of sexual difference will be able dispense with the troubled intellectual heritage of Freud. Still, Human Resources lays out the expanse of our cultural networks without telling readers where they fit into them—in this sense, “six million mazda / times,” that is to say, the burden of our histories, like the holocaust, “will not exhaust meaning.” We cannot stop trying to figure how to live in the world; we have to continuously generate meaning in the face of Capital’s assault on it. We can, then, write poetry after Auschwitz, but if we do, if we are to remain concerned with the figure of our own lyrical subjectivity, we must do so in the shadow, and with the materials of Benjamin’s “angel of history,” who appears in Human Resources at one point ascending, dangerously out of reach, a figure we must “grasp” while we can “before it / lose your soul.”
The impression that the ever increasing burden of history and culture remains open to new avenues of experience and thought came home to me clearly when I heard Zolf read from Human Resources in Portland, OR in May. Zolf read faster than any poet I’ve ever listened to. She ran her lines together at a fantastic pace without stumbling or slurring the words. In this way she created an effect where the near-mechanical condition of our lives and environments stood side by side with the limitless array of histories, ideas, and poems. Her performance gave me the impression that while Capital and genocide have won the day, they cannot completely resist our maneuverings. For they, like us, exist within complex cultural and historical realties, which are themselves subject to the narratives we form from them.