Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 8 January 2017


Point of View

I sent away for an opinion
        of myself.
It was a five-page form but I'd
        heard it was worth it.

The one that came back
        was rather short
so I put it on a pedestal
        to make it look taller.

Then the cat knocked it off
        and, from that height,
it had little choice
        but to shatter.

Good thing I'd taken a photo
        for posterity.

5 September 1989
I’ve returned to this notion several times over the years, the abstract turned concrete. Imagine your wife asks you, “How much do you love me?” and you go, “Hang on a sec,” dive behind the back of the sofa and hand her this huge lump of stuff: “THERE!” Makes more sense than throwing your arms wide and going, “This much,” or saying, “To the moon and back.” I used answer questions like that with a number plucked out of thin air, “3.7,” or “4.25 and climbing,” or “eleventy-nine.” I mean it’s a stupid question. How much do I love you? Loads. What do you want me to say? “More than you love me.”
I do love in the poem how the narrator has to go elsewhere for his own opinion of himself. It’s just silly. But then the whole thing’s silly. And yet… What is my opinion of myself? In 1989 I’ll tell you one thing, it wasn’t very high. But it was fragile. I got that right.


vito pasquale said...

There were a few times at work that we'd agree to fill out questionnaires about ourselves, ostensibly to improve our management skills and I have no doubt that at some level these programs worked. Well, I have some doubts but that's not for now. One of the people I worked with had received a relatively negative review from his direct reports and afterwards sat them in a room together to interrogate them as to what they meant by giving him such low ratings. I'm certain that wasn't part of the consultant's advice as to how he might improve. Clearly he didn't want to "improve." He'd gotten where he was by acting that way and he wasn't going to go all management guru from that point out in his career. In a numbers game he was getting a 1.2 on a scale from one to ten. Clearly there was no love. He wasn't ever getting an "eleventy-nine."

The forms we'd get back from the consultants were detailed and ambiguous enough that you could take from them almost anything you wanted. I wasn't writing back then but if I were, I'm sure I would have seen a lot more poetry than I did. Oh well, another opportunity lost.

Many years later my "best" poem ever came from a conversation I was having at work. We noticed that even though we were in a "game" where everyone could win, the only way we could lose is if someone tried to win. . . if someone tried to put him or herself ahead of others. I still think of that poem and my workplace fondly.

I too enjoy almost every time a poet turns the abstract into something concrete. There's always a process there that is interesting. Earlier this morning I was reading a poem where the poet turned the abstract notion of a "day" into something that could be rest upon one's forehead. It was rather brilliant as is this, your poem, Point Of View. . . the appraisal turned into something that needed to be put on a pedestal, only to shatter when the cat disturbed it. I love blaming the cat.

It's also in our seeking heights (the pedestal) that we can fall hard. Some see beauty in the forest, the trees that rise up to the sunlight. I think it telling that almost all the trees I invent in my poems are there for falling out of.

Jim Murdoch said...

Oh, I hated those self-appraisal forms, Vito. Hated, hated, hated. The bit I loathed most was the setting of goals. I used to argue, “All I can do is my best. It’s all you can ask of me and all you can expect from me. If I do my best I may exceed any arbitrary target we decide on but even if I don’t reach it I will still have succeeded because the goal was to do my best and if that’s what I’ve done then how can I ever fail?” But they wanted a number, something measurable, something they could shout at me about if I failed to make it. But here’s the funny thing: we used to do a post count every couple of weeks and the goal was to have no “Over 14” post on hand, i.e. every piece of correspondence had to be answered within a fortnight. For years, however, I had handed in a “Nil count” which meant I literally had no post on hand. At all. Every memo, every letter, every phone call I received was dealt with on the day of receipt. How much better could I get? The only time—and I do mean the one and only time I didn’t manage a nil count—was when I was covering another two allocations while people were on holiday. There was one file I couldn’t find and I searched high and low for that damn file. That Friday I counted one piece of post. And boy did that sting.

My relationship with ambition has been an odd one. I’ve never really been desperate to get on but it was always very important to me that I excelled at whatever job I did. There was only one thing to be: the best. And I always managed it. It ruined my health and contributed to the collapse of two marriages (and it could so easily have been a third had Carrie not been built of sterner stuff) but one of the things I’m not ashamed of in my life is my standing at work. I think the thing I cherish the most is an “award” I got at the end of my first year as an IT trainer. It says, “To Jim From Your First Class 1996.” It sits on the shelf right behind me. And I’ll tell you something: I earned that award.

Every job ended though and it seemed like every five or six years I was knocked off my pedestal and had to start again which is why I never ended up in a position of power. I was never really interested. I mastered whatever job I had and by the time I could do it in my sleep it was time to trudge back down to the bottom of the hill, locate the boulder and begin again. So in some respects my claims to success are a delusion because that’s not how most people would measure success. But I’ve never been most people.

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