Friday, August 22, 2014

`A Life of Small Disappointments'

A proven reporter’s dodge for loosening up recalcitrant interviewees – get them talking about family or work. If the former, be careful. You can blunder into tender domestic woes – divorce, illness, wayward children, death. Work is safer. If the subject likes his job and is good at it, or thinks he is, he’ll brag. If he hates it, he’s apt to indulge his hunger for grievance. Either way, he’s talking. Even when a misery, work is central and time-intensive, so how peculiar it is that writers today devote so little attention to it, or treat it only as wallpaper. One of the joys of Roth’s American Pastoral is learning about the glove-making trade. L.E. Sissman, an advertising executive, wrote about that business, and Larkin gave us "Toads." Add to the list the late Dennis O’Driscoll’s “The Bottom Line,” a veritable mock-epic of fifty eleven-line stanzas, published in a limited edition in 1994 by the Dedalus Press of Dublin and collected in Quality Time (Anvil Press, 1997). 

Most of the poem is narrated by a nameless business man, not the CEO but a mid-level executive. There’s mention of “sales” but the product is never named, prompting recollections of Lambert Strether’s “little nameless object.” It’s useful to know that O’Driscoll, who died on Christmas Eve 2012, joined the Office of the Revenue Commissioners in Dublin at age sixteen, specializing in “death duties, stamp duties, and customs,” and remained there for almost forty years.  In his memoir-essay “Sing for the Taxman,” O’Driscoll says, “I have always regarded myself as a civil servant rather than a `poet’ or `artist’ – words I would find embarrassing and presumptuous to ascribe to myself.” “The Bottom Line” is not a protest poem, telling truth to corporate power. The narrator is realistic about the compromises he has made, appreciative of the rewards, complaining only mildly about the job’s inevitable headaches. O’Driscoll avoids the vying clichés – “organization man” apologist and anti-corporate “activist.” The tone here, in the fifth stanza, should not be mistaken for arch satire: 

“I am a trustworthy, well-adjusted citizen
at this stage, capable of a commanding
pungency in business talk, good grasp
of office jargon, the skill to rest
phones on my shoulders as I keep tabs,
the ability to clinch a deal convincingly…” 

O’Driscoll knows the turf, the lingo and folkways of the working world. He is the Larkin of the office, minus the looming sense of desolation – almost Larkin Lite. In the 2009 essay “Working Bard” (The Outnumbered Poet: Critical and Autobiographical Essays, 2013) he writes: “Philip Larkin’s mutterings about work, as a `toad’ squatting on his life, did not blind him to the jewel in the amphibian’s head; waxing lyrical, he conceded that his choice of librarianship as a career was, in retrospect, an `inspired’ one.” From O’Driscoll’s sixth stanza: 

“A life of small disappointments, hardly
meriting asperity or rage, a fax
sent to the wrong number, an engagement
missed, a client presentation failing
to persuade: nothing you can’t sweat off
at gym or squash.” 

The concluding lines of that stanza recall Larkin’s “Aubade”: 

“But, in the dark filling
of the night, doubts gather with the rain
which, spreading as predicted from the west,
now leaves its mark on fuscous window panes;
and you wait for apprehensions to dissolve
in the first glimmer of curtain light.” 

There’s no melodrama or Hollywood mayhem in “The Bottom Line.” It’s true to our experience, not revenge fantasy, written by a mature adult for and about his peers. O’Driscoll closes his poem, and the narrator’s day, thoughtfully, peace of mind wrinkled faintly with apprehension: 

“Halogen lights tested, alarm clock set,
I burrow into the high-tog, duckdown quilt;
the number-crunching radio-clock squanders
digital numbers like there was no tomorrow.
Who will remember my achievements when
age censors me from headed notepaper?
Sometimes, if I try to pray, it is with
dead colleagues that I find myself communing…
At the end of the day, for my successors too,
what will cost sleep are market forces, vagaries
of share price, p/e ratio, the bottom line.”

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