At the end of 1999, I found myself the recipient of “the package” – the severance package that goes along with the legal document you need to sign if you accept the package. The document includes a commitment not to sue. One of the Human Resources people, forgetting that I was “on the list” and that I could translate the jargon, wandered around chirping how the package “met the test.” The test was not some government standard of non-discrimination; the test was actually whether or not the company got sued.
I waited until 55 minutes before the 45-day deadline to sign and deliver. The chirrupy HR person was nearly prostrate with anxiety. And with good reason: my attorney looked at the people on the list and said, “One female, 94 males, all between the ages of 40 and 50. This is so discriminatory it reeks. You could win this case, and easily. But you’d have to tie up your life for the next three to four years. And they know that.”
There was poetry in there, somewhere. But I couldn’t write that poetry then, and likely not now. Organizations think of layoffs as business decisions; the people affected see them as intensely personal. And, even years later, this remains intensely personal. But unemployment is a part of work, and it is part of poetry at work.
Richard Cole, a professional business writer in Austin, Texas, has lived this experience, but he was able to write about it. Reading “October Layoffs” is reliving the experience, at once familiar and painful:
Working in a troubled office, you develop
a fine ear for door slams, like the managerial
“Now see here!” — righteous and swift.
But you also distinguish the other kind,
still forceful but touched with a miserable hint
of reluctance that says, “I truly hate
to do this, but I’m your boss.”
Sitting at my desk, heart pounding,
almost in tears, I listen to our supervisor
talking rapidly next door. I put my ear to the wall,
and I hear Pat say, “Well, I figured …”
Full moon, October. I lie awake
half dreaming, drifting, and I see myself
making the rounds at the office, saying
goodbye, hugging each person in turn.
“You’ve done a good job. Be proud.”
Then immediately another image:
I’m sitting tailor fashion on my desk,
literally in burlap and ashes, head lowered,
my collar open, cool air on my neck.
A broad ax rises. I lower my head some more,
and the ax slices easily through my neck.
I feel my head tip forward
and fall, blood washing my chest,
soaking my shirt.
Startled, I lie in the dark. I’ve seen,
I think, what I needed to see:
that I’ll never work again for anyone else,
not with my heart, not with faith,
and I close my eyes, falling asleep
and sleep like the dead until morning.
But the fact is that morning comes. We may “sleep like the dead, ” but morning comes. In my case, I went to work for myself for the next three-and-a-half years; I needed away from formal organizational life. I eventually went back, stopping first in education before returning to the corporate world.
But the time away was well spent. I learned much about human nature, good and bad. I learned much about myself. The ideas for what would eventually become two novels were born during this time.
Cole’s poems (of which I’ve read a total of eight, and they’re all good) convey this same understanding, this same self-knowledge. Something is always broken or lost when one loses a job, or when one’s colleagues lose jobs. I’ve never heard of any organization “doing it well” when it comes to layoffs. But we can choose to come out of the experience better and wiser, and that’s what his poems suggest.
His two books of poetry are The Glass Children (1986) Success Stories: Poems and Essays (1998). His poetry has been published in The Hudson Review, The New Yorker, and Poetry Magazine, among others. He also received a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. He blogs (mostly about poetry) at Richard Cole, and has a business web site. He’s also recently completed a memoir, I Have Wonderful News: A Catholic Conversion.
“Poetry at Work” sounds almost like an oxymoron, but we at TweetSpeak Poetry believe poetry is all over our workplaces. Next Tuesday, January 15, is Poetry at Work Day, and we invite you to join us to celebrate. It can be as simply as writing a poem about you work, where you do your work, or your work colleagues. It can as elaborate as a poetry slam in the cafeteria. But let us know what you might be up to – and leave a comment (and/or a poem) here.
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