Mónica de la Torre, The Happy End / All Welcome
Publisher: Ugly Duckling Presse
2017, 114, paperback, $17
IN HER MOST recently completed project, The Happy End / All Welcome, Mónica de la Torre generates and explores the tension between creativity, imagination, anxiety and alienation within the modern workplace. This largely ekphrasitic collection seeks to reinterpret Martin Kippenberger’s famous 1994 installation, The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika” which features “an assortment of numbered tables and office desks with pairs of mismatched chairs” all contained “within a soccer field flanked by grandstands.” This imaginative visual installation translates directly into the chosen setting which underpins the works in de la Torres collection. Although Kippenberger claims “never to have read” Kafka’s Amerika, many of the themes from the unfinished twentieth century novel are clearly represented in Kippenberger’s interpretation. In Kafka’s unfinished work, an unemployed immigrant, Karl Roßmann, responds to an invitation to interview at the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. De la Torre’s collection begins with an homage to that same invitation, recasting Kafka’s vision in combination with the poet’s imaginative transformation of the Kippenberger scene as a surreal career fair for aspiring artists.
In her work, de la Torre manages to create a tone that combines uncanny abstraction and a refreshingly playful relationship to language and form. This is perhaps best expressed in poems like “View from a Dodo Chair” where a sense of lateral logic and pun contrasts the “adaptab[ility]” of the modern recliner with the extinct bird that informs the chair’s moniker. In keeping with the playful sense of humor present throughout much of the work, de la Torre employs a variety of forms within the collection, switching from the prose block to lineated poems and even to the concision of abstract interview dialogues. Even the use of series within the collection promotes the concept of proliferation and variation. Whereas poems within the table series exist as a collection of independent, dream-like job interviews, in which artists seek employment in often strange or absurd occupations, other selections, like the series of poems all entitled “Case Study,” serve as varied iterations of a dream-state which exist in dialogue with the “Armchair Psychologist or Pop Freudianist” of the poem “Table 45” (which precedes the “Case Study” selections).
While much of de la Torre’s work can be viewed as light-hearted on the surface, her collection also seeks to address a more bleak and anxious response to the uniformity and alienation present in both the language and physicality of the modern workplace. In poems like her color series and “Human Intelligence Tasks,” de la Torre manipulates found language in order to point out the emptiness inherent in signage and the formal diction of marketing, also enlivening the toneless world of signage by creating context via repetition. Readers are invited to follow the speaker in poems such as “Blue” which transitions from decontexualized “service changes” and the familiar brand of trailer, “air stream,” to arrive at the poem’s conclusion “air changes” through the poem’s shifting reinterpretations of found language. Similarly, “Human Intelligence Tasks” engenders readers with the paradoxically mechanical data-based tasks that cannot be completed without the judgment of a discerning human subject. The poem develops a sense of irony in that human judgment becomes the final, integral piece of an overtly mechanized process. The poem’s clinical tone, and the poet’s intentional limitation of available words and phrasing mirror the alienating effect of such tasks within the poem’s very form.
Overall, de la Torre’s new collection serves as a highly experimental and innovative inquiry into themes and aesthetics connecting Kafka’s unfinished novel with the visual imagery and sense of place suggested by Kippenberger’s installation. The Happy End / All Welcome serves to address the increasing sterility of marketing buzzwords and the modern, corporate work environment. However, de la Torre’s work goes beyond a critique of modern alienation, applying a strong sense of humor, creativity, imagination and play in an attempt to reclaim and reinvigorate the hollow jargon of the business world. Through concision, abstraction and a strong sense of intertexuality, Monica de la Torre breathes life into the often-emotionless mechanism of corporate culture. It would seem that this collection’s goal is to find and generate poetry from the barren landscape of commercial language, a goal that de la Torre deftly achieves.
— Greg Holland
Mónica de la Torre is the author of six books of poetry, including The Happy End/All Welcome(UDP) and Feliz año nuevo, a volume of selected poetry translated into Spanish (Luces de Gálibo) forthcoming in the spring of 2017. Born and raised in Mexico City, she writes in, and translates into, Spanish and English. Recent and upcoming publications include Triple Canopy, Harper’s, Poetry, The White Review, The Animated Reader (The New Museum), Erizo, the New Yorker, and huun: arte / pensamiento desde México. She teaches in the Literary Arts program at Brown University.