Reviewed by Paul Lee, Richie McCaffery, George Simmers and Ross Kightly
A manager is mocked in this collection. I have to feel for Robin Vaughan-Williams, though his experience is hardly unique. Most of the managers I’ve worked with were managers because they wanted to be, or thought they did, rather than because they were the best people for the job. They then took on the colouring of the organisation that employed them. Most of them were men, as well, which is not to let women managers off the hook. If managers are absurd, as they often are, that is because so are the organisations they work for. Hence, they are easy to mock, and nearly always deserving of it:
The manager sits behind a blue curtain
with his feet in a bucket
and a sliver of onion up each nostril
for hours on end.
(‘Manager #6 The Big Idea’)
Most of these poems are in the same vein, as if Robin Vaughan-Williams was irresistibly drawn to the surreal. Even the few more straightforward poems carry a note of this as in ‘Manager #1 Mantra’::
The manager has proverbs on the wall about being a good man
and he reads them at times of intense isolation [ . . . ]
He remembers the words of his management guru:
We need systems that run themselves.
A good manager is almost invisible.
Left to themselves, hierarchies will emerge naturally in human groups, according to personalities. The hierarchies in organisations are artificial and imposed. That is why so many managers are square pegs in round holes. There is an ex-manager writing this review who was exactly that, as well as often absurd.
I do, however, think the surrealism and absurdity are overdone, and even unnecessary in some cases. Straight description of reality is often all that is needed. That’s surreal and absurd enough. But Robin Vaughan-Williams does do it well:
Who says white collar don’t dance?
He dance like a native!
The manager sways in his grass skirt
before the windows, and the whole community
sways with him.
With oblique parallels to Wallace Stevens’ ‘13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, this ambitious and outré sequence of work-place-based poems looks at the mysterious, almost eldritch, figure of the manager and his ever-changing guises. The collection is, if not auspiciously, at least aptly timed to strike resonances in today’s job-challenged climate. It’s also an often insightful and moving look into the plight of the wage-slave and the existential crises posed by the workplace under the Argus-eyed regime of ‘Manager #8’ who notes bleakly that “some are meant to meander through their quotidian lives/ while other rise to the middle ranks”.
From the dryly playful tones of ‘Manager 0#—Risk Assessment Exercise’ with its mock health and safety sloganeering to surreal and magic-realist dreamscapes such as ‘Correspondent’ where “the manager runs across war zones”, what emerges is a deeply anti-authoritarian look at the underlying inhumanity and Otherness of the Manager, as well as occasional sympathetic glimpses of his own suffering where he “feels like he’s been forgotten”.
Rather like the almost Elysian image of the mundane borough turned into glittering illusion at the end of Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye, there is a feeling of lyrical power contained by the needs of bureaucracy and drudgery only to flourish truly at the end of the sequence where “in the valley, tower blocks have broken free of their foundations/ and are ringing roses in the sky/ rippling their pastel bodywork”.
No character is more typical of our times than the manager. The central character of Robin Vaughan-Williams’ poem-sequence is utterly organised, utterly organising, and of course mad.
One of the book’s epigraphs is from a management guru: “Leaders must encourage their organisations to dance to forms of music yet to be heard.” As the sequence progresses, we see the manager aspiring to this goal. He begins (as he should) by conducting a Risk Assessment Exercise:
Danger: of bumping into things in the dark
Action: keep eyes open
Danger: of seeing something you shouldn’t
Action: keep eyes shut
So far so relatively normal, but the man’s scope and ambition expand. He gradually becomes omnipresent (“The manager hides behind desks,/inside drawers, glove compartments”). A Health and Safety Incident (he spills hot coffee on himself) allows him brilliantly to “translate vision into reality”:
The manager burns, he burns
with the heat of an example
others will follow: a new kind of leader.
After a brutal exercise of power (firing the poet, who of course is inessential to the organisation) the manager becomes transcendent and dances:
The manager sways in his grass skirt
before the window, and the whole community
sways with him.
So powerful is his charm that ‘tower blocks have broken free of their foundations’ at the news of his coming. Apotheosis.
From satire on an organisation to pure surrealism, the sequence mutates as madly as the manager, and provides a joyful object-lesson in how to mine genuine poetry from the most banal depths of modern life.
One of the best things about Surrealism as an aesthetic movement or a method of working was that it pointed up the fact that so-called Surrealist works of art are not odd: all they really do is indicate the Surreal nature of everyday so-called reality.
Thus, though there is some relatively conventional surreal imagery in some of the section of this collection, such as the playfulness we find in ‘The Manager’s Eyes’ in #8, where eyes are on his wings, his tail, pinned to pin boards, popped out and see faraway places, this kaleidoscopic wildness concludes with the insight they have given the manager into the nature of reality:
some are meant to meander through their quotidian lives
while others rise to the middle ranks.
The opening piece (‘MANAGER #0 Risk Assessment Exercise’) draws most of its weirdness from the real-life process of making risk assessments, rather than from the admittedly brilliant additions, such as the Action to avoid the “Danger: of falling backwards downstairs”, which is to “install air bags in stairwells”.
One of the most intriguing and stimulating things about this collection is the feeling it gives of having been assembled from a number of disparate observations about life in many walks, but having then been unified in the personality of the manager himself, who is one of the more effectively-realised denizens of the strange world where corporate values clash with and often crush the vulnerable individual (“If you’re not a team player, you may as well leave now”).
The manager’s own vulnerability is not a straightforward matter, and another of the virtues of the collection is that it offers no straight-line evaluations of anybody: “no croque monsieur is ever a perfect square” [#7] as he finds out to his cost later in the sequence. We can only hope, I think, that he is “a suicide [who] parachutes safely to the ground” in the closing words of the final poem.
Any collection that tells us that “Cobbles/ are popping in Paradise Square/ and the Cathedral has shifted on its axis” and that tower blocks “are ringing roses in the sky/ rippling their pastel bodywork” because “They have heard/ the manager is coming” has done much to reconfirm the validity of Surrealism as a means of understanding who and what we are.
And I recommend this quintessentially urban image as one upon which to meditate:
The green glass of stars twinkles in the walkway.