The immediate instinct when reading Human Resources is to see the poems as rants against the pervading office mentality of faster-harder-cheaper. Toronto poet Rachel Zolf shows adept skill at parroting corporate language in order to highlight the flawed cogs of internal memos and style guides. Each section of her text is flanked by familiar rhetoric: writing “persuasive body copy” requires the writer to “start selling on the first line” and “burn out meaning”; writing for the internet commands that one “filter, impose trespass” before “[thinking] branding.”
By copying and co-opting these misguided phrases, Zolf is able to recast them in a new poetic context. The result is a rearranging and twisting of each talking point back on itself that in turn renders it opaque and laughable. The humour disarms the phrases and makes Zolf’s attacks more pointed and powerful. Readers would do well to huddle underneath their desks with this book (or headphones), far from the boss’ eyes, if only to regain the vocabulary and creativity that is so often beaten out of workers.
But this anger is the most user-friendly theme in the text. What is more important (and interesting) is the attention paid to the disintegration of modern language through the ubiquity of advertising. Advertising has made words and phrases so commonplace that they have begun to lose all meaning (and sincerity); the average person walking down the Queen Street is left with a string of pithy phrases that neither enlighten nor excite. This book is about the decay of creative language and the hollowing out of words to create a homogenized ad-speak.
The goal of the work is to resist the phrase that jumps out in a split-second glance and to construct a text that requires a great deal of thought to work through its density. Zolf reuses the advertising vocabulary and molds it into an indistinct pabulum—a wall of words and language that is dense and initially inaccessible. This forces the reader to slow down and consider each word in a completely new and poetic light. This new linguistic context aims to reclaim those words overused into oblivion by advertisers as well as restore those words tossed away because they are in fact too emotional, too personal, too clever.
What emerges from the end pages of Human Resources is a dense and rich work, one bordered with anger but deeply in love (and indebted) to slippery and unstable language.
Human Resources is available through Coach House Books for $16.95.