Saturday, August 13, 2016

Stephanie Lenox, The Business


Your boss is an ass. Your pay, shit.
Each day feels like two, every task pointing
to another: the nine-to-five multiplying paperwork.
No wonder you’re tired, two bosses on your back,
the boss of what is and the boss of what could be.

Of course, you don’t get paid more
for taking on new work. It’s the price, you say,
of competence. Your job is a ship
propelling you forward. It is a lead weight, a bird.
No one knows what’s in your briefcase,
not even you, but you carry it back and forth,
part of the uniform, a symbol of duty.

A raise is not just more money. The coffee pot
is a sacred monument. One floor above,
one floor below, someone like you worries
over his retirement, rearranges pens,
reads a headline of national progress
then turns to the photo of a car wreck.

On your own, you have no authority:
each decision you make must be approved
by another, and for that you’re glad,
sharing the weight if something goes wrong
but also the glory if all goes right, the business
of making something else for someone else,
endlessly generous, the work of work.

Oregon poet and editor Stephanie Lenox’s second full-length poetry collection, The Business (Fort Collins CO: The Center for Literary Publishing, 2016), focuses on the battle to keep soul and body intact within the dehumanizing, and even soul-destroying, aspects of the office/cubicle workspace. The book is reminiscent, in terms of subject matter, of Rachel Zolf’s remarkable Human Resources (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2007) [see my review of such here], a poetry book directly constructed from the dehumanized language of office culture. Lenox, on her part, focuses less on the language than on the experiences, culture and space of office life, critically savaging elements of what she paints to be as a combination of painfully superficial and an incredibly dehumanizing drone-culture. As she writes to open the poem “THE COST”: “Each year the sun burns closer to the skin / and the skin yields to it.”

The poems in The Business are sharp, witty and occasionally funny (without falling prey to being overly “clever”), but the ones that really stand out are the longer list poems, themselves constructed as accumulations that are as much meant to be heard, and push far further in scope and tone than other pieces in the collection, such as the six-page “TEAMWORK,” that opens:

Let’s make this the best day ever.
Let’s go to work.
Let’s look at how we can improve the process.
Let’s create a flowchart, a spreadsheet, a PowerPoint presentation.
Let’s make it sparkle.
Let’s really make it shine.
Let’s all remember to fill out our vacation requests.
Let’s call tech support and see what they have to say.
Let’s put in 110%.
Let’s make it a team effort.
Let’s make it look like we do work around here.
Let’s give it up for Carl in the corner office.
Let’s give it a rest.

It is poems such as this, as well as “REJOICE IN THE PETTY THIEVERY OF OFFICE SUPPLIES,” that really push the absurdities of a particular kind of office-work existence. Through the remaining poems, Lenox writes out small frustrations, small pockets of frustrations and experiences that, themselves, accumulate into what becomes the larger collection, but these longer, list-y poems elevate the office existence into a kind of meaninglessness, showcasing a culture of work for work’s sake, and a power dynamic that not only corrupts but corrodes, and for remarkably little purpose.


Every story begins with a slight—
golden-apple hand grenade tossed into the crowd.

Until that moment, no one is thinking about ideals.
Being perfect is simply a way to pass the time.

Then enters Doubt, a chorus of questions,
someone new on the scene, an intern, perhaps.

Add fire or flood, a touch of unfaithfulness.
Damage that must be paid for again and again.

Pain at the center of all story. Pain. At the center.
Oh, how we love our stories.

A journey, a war, a mesmerizing face.
The myth is that we think it will be different.

Character and plot: one rock, one endless, bone-heaped hill.
To be angry is to take your place among the gods.

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