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Human Resources

By (May 4, 2008) No Comment

Human Resources
Rachel Zolf
Coach House Books, 2007

Having read a little about Human Resources, I suspected I might “get” the project pretty quickly and not need or want to finish the whole thing. It combines corporate language (“I took it offline”), machine-generated poems and unsettling numeric codes (based in part on a database of the most frequently used words in English, as explained in an end note) – which gave me the impression that the poems would be soulless and creepy by necessity.

But I surprised myself by reading the entire book in one sitting. I can’t think of a time I’ve digested a 90-page book of poetry so quickly, which is a testament to its sustained liveliness and accessibility. And while it’s not not creepy, it’s funny and true in equal doses.

Zolf rotates through a handful of different “forms,” none longer than a page – prose blocks, PowerPoint-style bulleted lists, short poems of about a sentence per stanza, and poems generated by a Flash poetry program – and this variety keeps things interesting without losing the reader in an overly chaotic system. The voice of the poems, more an un-pin-down-able uber-voice than a single persona, reads like a ticker tape of office-ese:

We’re in a bit of a holding pattern right now providing you with a pulse on ‘inquiring minds’ I’d kill this sentence entirely.

On our side of the family my day got totally blown out of the water push back if you think this is a ‘must have.’

As you progress through the book and learn its codes (“Include a link to the Code,” a list titled “How to write for the Internet” advises), gradually certain words are replaced with the number presumably representing their frequency of use. (If so, the last word in the line “Ambiguities of the human condition are a threat to surfeit of 1267” is “meaning.”) This turns the book into a kind of interactive game – readers can look up the words (the URL to the database is supplied in the back), guess at them or simply enjoy the robotic effect of the alphanumeric lines as they stand.

This isn’t just a comment on what it’s like to work in an office, but what it’s like to live in a culture flooded with office-generated artifacts. It’s a daring experiment – Zolf risks unreadability but never succumbs to it until the very end, and then provocatively – that raises all kinds of uncomfortable questions: How do machines speak? Are corporations machines? Are humans machines (merely “resources”)? Are they corporations?

Elisa Gabbert is the poetry editor of Absent and the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC) and Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007). Her latest chapbook co-written with Kathleen Rooney isDon’t ever stay the same; keep changing (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Recent poems can be found inColorado ReviewThe Laurel ReviewPuerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.