Corporate Relations by Jena Osman

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The first questions: why here? Why poetry? These are questions that hovers over politics and poetry. Why poetry? Is this poetry? Is poetry going to make a difference? More appropriately, perhaps, does poetry need to make a difference if it’s going to talk politics? In a sense, yes. If a poem is going to talk politics we want the poem to win. Those are the rules made up since Plato, when he made dialogues featuring a guy named Socrates. If Socrates was going to be in the dialogue, he sure as hell better win. Even if he’s drinking hemlock, and he’s talking about the chill of death traveling up his body, Socrates needs to win. He did win, too.

Of course, Osman’s book Corporate Relations is quicker to the argument, not like Plato’s dialogues that are the longest possible path to argument you’ll ever find. Osman’s book is more like a dance-off, where two crews line up on either side of a stage. On one side, we have a set of Supreme Court cases ruling in favor of corporate personhood. On the other side, we have a bad ass mother fucker named Jena Osman, provided “Jena Osman” is the stand-in for willing interrogator, personification of skepticism, and prudent agitator acting on the behalf of humanity. To be clear, this match is designed so that one side’s rhetoric will clearly sound the winning punch before anything’s even begun. Because good political poetry is a fixed game. Political poems are like a bully trickster to the dominant culture. Would there really be any interest in a poem written in support of a Corporation’s feelings or opinions or overall personhood? Politically speaking, would we want to hear that type of poetry? Poetically speaking, could there ever be an argument claiming a necessity for that type of poem? Maybe the closest we can get are the wily luxuries of Frederick Seidel. But, of course, it would be lazy politics to lump exorbitant wealth into the same camp as corporate personhood. Maybe they’re more like a kind-of, should-be cousins relationship.

So we return to the question from the beginning: Why here? Why write this book of poems, and the rhetorical stage it represents? Why put on another David v. Goliath political theater if David (i.e. the American People) are still going to walk away feeling screwed?

Because for all the bravado of a Daily Show with Jon Stewart and all the satirical incision of a Colbert Report, there is something extra that the lyric can add to this argument. If Osman is setting up a rhetorical battle, and we know the argument part of the battle is likely to be won by the bad ass mother fucker in the ring, what are the terms of victory? That corporations cannot possibly be people? If this were the extent of Osman’s argument, this book would fail. That the court has been siding with corporations for more than 100 years? Though this additional information is disturbing, and therefore useful, it would likely be even more useful if it were included in a book called, The Dummy’s Guide to the Supreme Court Screwing Us Over (for 100 Years!).

How I feel this book needs to be poetry, and can succeed most fully in its lyric form, is to open the Bill of Rights as a human document intended to protect humans living in the United States from powerful humans or the organizations powerful humans are often employed by as they inevitably reach past common decency for their own selfish gains. Perhaps these organizations are acting inadvertently. Perhaps they are malicious. (Perhaps Osman tips a little too heavily on the side of a malicious conspiracy argument in this book.) But the strength in Osman’s argument, the dance move her speaker pulls off that is like a windmill followed by a handstand, then elbow stand, then snapped back up into a handstand is the implicit argument made by the order of constitutional amendments covered by Corporate Relations. It’s not only the first amendment at play here, people. Corporate Personhoods have taken the fifth to avoid incrimination. They’ve co-opted the fourteenth for due process!

And with each of these amendments, Osman makes clear the moral consequences of depersonalizing the constitution or personalizing the corporation, however your politics might define this. From the poem “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission”:

there is no place where an ongoing chill is more dangerous
we couldn’t sever it based on the language
presumably as a poison pill

these corporations have a lot of money
we get to that when we get there
they want winners

individuals are more complicated than that
Chief Justice Roberts: You have a busy job.
You can’t expect everybody to do that.
[Laughter]

By the sound of them, these fragments could have been lifted directly from the Citizens United court case. They likely weren’t (assuming that court cases don’t often refer to an “ongoing chill”). Instead, the style and tone make them feel like they are part of a highlight reel that offer a sense of what actually happened in the Supreme Court chamber. In this quote (appearing immediately after Osman has summarized the case for the reader), a sense of the Corporation’s motives (“they want winners”) and what a corporate entity is willing to do in order to achieve its goals (“a poison pill”). Is this comparable to a human motive? The implication here is that any human who acts using one motive alone is going to run into the broad range of complications that come from living around other humans. And so contributing large sums of money to a political candidate for the sole purpose of being on the winning side of an election is not going to be a typical human action.

Jena OsmanOsman further complicates what would be the usual debate surrounding Citizens United by introducing Justice Roberts at the end of this quotation. And here, the humanity of our present constitutional circumstances is touched on. These are real people serving on the Supreme Court. Real people employing language in real ways. I.e. real people don’t necessarily act on behalf of what would appear in these circumstances to be most logical or just. “You have a busy job. / You can’t expect everybody to do that.” Who is the you? For my reading, the “you” is Elena Kagan, Solicitor General at that time, who was arguing against Corporate Personhood. And the nature of Justice Roberts’ statement? “Not everybody is as complicated as you, Elena.” Maybe more people are simpletons, Chief Justice Roberts. And I’m glad the Chief Justice of the United States would think so little of the people he serves. Here, again, the benefit of poetry as argument, where the poem gets to aim a type of criticism at individual players in this drama that would not seem appropriate for, say, a book documenting the history of a Supreme Court precedent.

Yes. Corporate Relations should be seen as a bona fide political argument for the left. But the standard for reading a poem like this shouldn’t simply be “it’s making a political argument.” If the poems are going to land the rhetorical knockout, a reader should be willing to gauge how much of a knockout they are. Judged against Osman’s recent books, Public Figures and The Network, I would say Corporate Relations is the hardest of the three for rhetorical blows. But, then, the premise of Public Figures is so much more fascinating. And the poetry of The Network feels so much more open-ended and poetic and hinting at an argument rather than insisting. This points to the risk Osman takes in Corporate Relations: how does one keep explicit political argument from devolving into a rant? Watching Jon Stewart can be so dissatisfying if you think about the content alone. During the Bush years especially, it was a relief to know someone could construct a cutting critique against that man, but he was still our President still making the same illogical decisions after The Daily Show ended. For Corporate Relations, the poem/court cases alone would land that dissatisfying Jon Stewart kind of punch. It’s the imagistic poems punctuating the book, and how they complement to the sequence of amendments Osman addresses that pull Corporate Relations away from pure argument alone. I would argue the poetry is still a bit too directed. Yet it’s that clarity and closure that gives a solid poetic twist to the politics involved.


Kent Shaw's first book Calenture was published in 2008. His work has appeared in The Believer, Ploughshares, Boston Review and elsewhere. He begins teaching at Wheaton College in Massachusetts in Fall 2016. More from this author →