“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” wrote Thoreau in Walden. The line is often misquoted to include an addendum, “and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Richard Cole has known his share of desperation, but he won’t go to his grave without singing.
Song of the Middle Manager, Cole’s third book of poems, picks up where his second book, Success Stories, published a quarter of a century ago, left off. In the earlier book, Cole detailed the small triumphs and daily struggles of life in New York, first as a Manhattanite dreaming of success as a screenwriter that would support his poetry, then as a Brooklyn husband and father struggling to pay the rent with a job writing advertising copy, two paychecks from the street. His poems about the being part of a team, about the camaraderie of work, and then about waiting for layoffs to begin during a recession are among the most accurate and moving depictions of office life I’ve ever read.
The poet we meet in Song of the Middle Manager has left New York for his home state of Texas. He has served as communications director for tech startups, edited trade magazines, and worked as a freelance business writer. Whitman’s line, “I am the man, I suffered, I was there,” applied to the business world, could serve as epigraph for much of Cole’s work. The title poem of this book begins:
I have walked down silent corporate hallways
deep in the belly. I have worn the white shirts of fire
and muted tie, dark shoes and matching wallet.
I have eaten the cocktail wienie
At company picnics and listed to the bosses
And admired their muscular toys.
I have laughed with the eager lieutenants.
I have kissed ass and pondered.
Cole’s poems read like the dispatches of a spy or foreign correspondent, reporting from a world of which he both is and is not a part. He doesn’t buy into the go-go capitalism of the start-ups, yet he shares in the hopes of his co-workers and respects the effort they put into their work. “Initial Public Offering” details the excitement of a successful stock launch, using the notion of launch as a metaphor for flight, the company’s very building rising into the sky like an airplane:
and we’re sailing faster, staring in wonder
as we fly toward a wall of clouds, beautiful clouds,
massive and brilliant, like solid rock.
That seeming rock may be all too real, however, and Cole is well acquainted with crashes both personal and corporate. The title character in “The Man Who Was Passed Over” invites you into his office and offers you a chair, giving little evidence of the anger that is eating him alive. In “Mergers & Acquisitions” Cole describes the layoffs that result from the takeover of an ailing company in terms befitting a slaughterhouse, the acquired firm being dissected like a steer’s carcass, with much to be discarded as no longer necessary.
All of this is described in sober, measured language, but the poetic sneaks into Cole’s business-like tone, like noticing a beautiful sunset while walking through a terminal on a business trip. “I have seen such beauty in the air / and paused, if only for a moment,” he writes in the title poem. This just-the-facts-ma’am persona makes it all the more shocking when Cole goes off the rails of sanity in poems like “Oh Dear,” while still being both droll and civil.
I take the automatic from the filing cabinet
and head to the corner office where I catch
the Vice President of Software Sales
and he looks up, smiling, his eyes like two
knife slits. “Is this a good time?” I ask
as I pump three bullets into his chest. Oh
dear. What have I done?
But nothing bad happens. The CFO rushes in with paper towels, interns drag the body out, and the new widow is brought in to sign the release, and the work goes on, all this activity demonstrating that teamwork is more than just a motto at this company.
Cole is a master of juxtaposed images, as in “Deepwater Horizon,” where he describes reporting on a three-day conference of energy companies in Houston. “That was my job, to explain how some things / work and what they cost.” He listens to speeches on Jumbotrons and dines at fancy restaurants, saving the last afternoon to sit in the Rothko Chapel, a space for meditation built by oil wealth. Afterwards, driving home through the dark, he has a vision of the oil-based energy that powers our computers, “the networks / alive in a cloud of lightning / charged by the power of crude.” And then he remembers the sacrifices required by that need for energy, recalling the images on television:
. . . the offshore rig,
the flash and explosion, steel
groaning as the burning platform
drops to its knees, mercy boats
circling, helpless, and the columns of fire
ascending in darkness, images
Shakespearean in grandeur, bodies
of angels floating in the water.
Cole has made his living in the business world, far from MFA programs, writing advertising copy for pay. This makes him suspect to those who would divide the world of writing into pure art and tainted copy, the Virgin and the Whore. ”Thou shalt not be on friendly terms / With guys in advertising firms,” wrote Auden, as if any kind of successful writing isn’t hard-won. Cole’s depictions of struggle and fear in the business world would be completely familiar to any adjunct instructor worrying about landing a full-time teaching gig at the next AWP convention and wondering if she’s kidding herself about tenure.
Cole has made his way in both of the worlds he inhabits. “The House That Brochures Built,” quoted here in its entirety, could serve as an apologia pro vita sua for Cole’s life and all of the writing he’s done:
My finest work, to be honest –
the thousands of slick,
four-color brochures to support
my wife, myself, two sons and a home,
selling life insurance and security
bonds, selling porta-toilets
and hard cheese, selling faith,
reassurance and calm.
I’ve lit candles for clients
and prayed for their welfare
and prayed for their business,
and for years I’ve prayed for the copy
and the copy has come, well-
hacked and sweated, typing the words
that work for these artful books,
songs of myself, each one
my best shot,
none of them signed.
While the author of those brochures might be anonymous to the public, the author of this book is not, and the poems he’s written on his night job deserve to be read.
Reagan Upshaw has had reviews published in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, Able Muse, Tupelo Quarterly, and other publications.