March 10, 2012

Review by Michael MeyerhoferThe Melancholy MBA

THE MELANCHOLY MBA
by Richard Donnelly

Brick Road Poetry Press
P. O. Box 751
Columbus, GA 31902-0751
ISBN 978-0984100569
2011, 116 pp., $16.00
http://www.brickroadpoetrypress.com/

The Melancholy MBA is the debut collection of Richard Donnelly, and in addition to being timely, it’s also pretty damn impressive. Donnelly’s style is unique in that he manages to break new ground (especially in how his frequent use of caesura forces the reader to take his/her time, really digest the language of these poems) while deftly sidestepping the pretension and unfriendliness all too often found in “experimental” poetry. Put another way, these poems are wonderfully fresh and original yet distinctly human in their accessibility.

The “quiet desperation” famously mentioned by Thoreau is everywhere in these poems, made palatable by wry wit blended with the seething frustration and guilt of Middle Management, America. In “Office Window,” the narrator remarks how he’s just been given “a new office with a window” and, nearing middle age, is finally able to see “Minneapolis sunshine.” One could point out the irony of this, suggesting he could just go outside if he wanted to see the sun, but then you have to wonder how visible the sun would be in the city—not to mention the American ridiculousness of having to choose between a paycheck and sunlight.

Another example is “Jelly Beans,” an early poem in which an unnamed character seems unfazed by the near loss of a “three hundred thousand dollar” account, but sternly questions whether the narrator is the one who has been stealing jelly beans from the jar on his desk. On first read, it’s a funny poem combining the frustration of trying to deal with an incompetent who cares more about safeguarding his sweets than keeping his job. On second glance, though, there’s something sad and familiar about that situation, a bit of human frailty staining the machinery gears. We see this again in “She Tricked,” where we read how an unattractive woman famous for tricking “a man into getting her pregnant” flirts with the narrator, who “[doesn’t] blame her,” perhaps because he recognizes something of his own loneliness and desperation in her actions.

Fans of films like Office Space or even the much darker He Was a Quiet Man will find much that is familiar here, to say nothing of those who themselves have actually worked in factories or offices and experienced firsthand the struggle to maintain individuality in a setting that, perhaps by necessity, wears down the creativity and complexity of the human experience in favor of mechanical productivity. For instance, in “Cabo,” the narrator overhears a group of salespeople being berated like disappointing children, warned that they may lose their “spiffs” if they don’t meet their quota. You can almost see the salespeople hanging their heads, shifting nervously, even though we (like the narrator) have no idea what a “spiff” means in this context.

Those themes continue in “Your Life,” which contains perhaps the book’s most striking scene. There, an obviously dissatisfied narrator contemplates an affair with a woman who claims his life is “so perfect,” but instead of taking decisive action one way or another, he hangs up, clears his schedule, then simply spends “half an hour… staring at the wall.” The poet need provide no further details for the reader to imagine the indecision, excitement, and self-loathing that may be going through the narrator’s mind, all being clear illustrations of the very mortality the narrator both fears and seeks to embrace on the deepest level possible.

However, these poems are not merely concerned with dissecting futility, posing the question of what constitutes a physical or a moral life worth living. Nor is The Melancholy MBA a two dimensional view into the mind of a modern businessman (stereotypically as foreign to most poets as, well, poetry to Wall Street). One of this book’s strengths is its unassuming ambition, plus its ability to maintain verisimilitude while illustrating the paranoia, classism and/or racism interwoven in the business community. “Poor People” is an excellent example (reposted here in its entirety):

there are some poor people
in the world
I see them at the Northland Park
Community Center or
Dell Foods in
Avery
they wear dirty sweatshirts
stained sweat pants old
broken tennis shoes
their hair hangs
around their faces
their oily hair
it’s almost like being crazy
is what it looks like to
me until one of their kids
kicks in your
door at two a.m. and says
crazy
I’ll show you crazy

Some of Donnelly’s best uses of tongue-in-cheek humor occur in poems about the opposite sex, many of which also have some underlying feminist commentary or critique of the human condition. For instance, the sectioned poem “Six Short Poems about Love” begins with a vignette about a woman who refuses to bring the narrator coffee, saying she’ll only do that for her husband, but in fact, “not even for / him.” The rebuke seems playful, though, whereas in “The Good Manager,” a frustrated narrator tries to distance himself from a female employee who seems to be asking for leniency, a raise, and a personal shoulder to cry on, though he finishes by telling her to “button / up the top / of that blouse.” While that poem could be read as a lighthearted critique of an inappropriate worker, an alternate view would be to read the poem’s title satirically, so that the rebuke is how the narrator feels he should respond, for whatever reason, but doesn’t. Perhaps my favorite example, though, not to mention my favorite line from the book, is the beginning of “Sex Poem,” which artfully blends eroticism with measured self-deprecation:

A woman’s body
is a foreign country
and you are not a native
you are a man with a stamped
passport.

Underneath these small, often funny tales of lust, ambition, and petty betrayals, the real strength of these poems is their obsession with mortality, coupled with the absurdity of our daily situation. Somehow, though, Donnelly manages to illustrate all this with the timing, charisma, and lyrical acrobatics of a stand-up comic. The end result is that we not only agree with him, nodding and sometimes laughing as we turn the page, but we feel better (and stronger) for it.

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Michael Meyerhofer’s third book, Damnatio Memoriae, won the Brick Road Poetry Book Contest. His previous books are Blue Collar Eulogies (Steel Toe Books) and Leaving Iowa (winner of the Liam Rector First Book Award). He has also won five chapbook prizes. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, North American Review, Arts & Letters, River Styx, Quick Fiction and other journals, and can be read online at www.troublewithhammers.com.