“I’m paid to multitask, scramble the life / out of fun.” In his fourth poetry collection, Proprietary, American poet Randall Mann finds himself amid the corporate chatter of org-charts and start-to-start dependencies. His poems bristle in the elevator ride with biotech executives. They cringe at the accidentally sent reply-all. From Double Helix Way to Mission Dolores Park to Market Street, Proprietary shuttles us into San Francisco, the so-called “technical mouth / of the bay.”
It is this very “technical mouth” — the language of corporate speech — that Mann tries on, playfully and ironically. In doing so, Mann attunes us to the ways in which its formality has cramped our everyday, and how the creep of corporation has stamped out our chances at fun, love, and intimacy.
In a light-fingered fashion, Mann sets words precariously between the personal and the proprietary. When, in “Halston,” the titular American fashion designer signs away the rights to his own name, the “options” he receives teeters dangerously between “choice” and “financial contract.” Likewise, the poem “Tender” balances between the tenderness its title implies and its noun form: “a written or formal offer to […] do a job for an agreed price.”1 Lacing romance with finance, the speaker of “Tender” quips on his work in corporate biotech:
There was a time
we had a functional alignment
I was your individual
contributor, you my associate
Beneath this play, however, sits an incisive observation on the mechanics of technical work.
on the critical path.
The whiteboard, cruel
as conceptual math,
I took on a new role,
went through the motions
and the typing pool.
But the bonus was no bonus,
any more than the bay.
Like tender, it started to fray.
In “Tender,” this fraying force is the spiritless, day-to-day grind in the biotech industry. In “Proprietary,” the friction comes from the clinical reports of lab animals attempting suicide, the calculated combination of molecules for medical pills, and the cool quantification of their selling price. To little surprise, the speaker, at the end of the collection, issues a formal resignation, leaving as soul-sucked as a “zombie gone / on a violent meditation retreat.”
Many of Mann’s poems adopt a formal, rhymed poetic structure — a choice seemingly at odds with his arched criticism of corporate formality. However, Mann’s double entendres and slant rhymes find opportunities for deviance within a set structure. Each of these poetic techniques stretches the limits of the very form it inhabits. And so, even from the cubicle, Mann reassures us on his small insurgencies. “I gained a little access,” the concluding poem reads. “My version of subversion / is using two / exclamations when none will do.”
In Proprietary, these mechanics are neither relegated to the cubicle nor necessarily cruelly mathematical. Mann follows the machine from its corporate manifestation into childhood recollections. And, while the machine is often seen as the antithesis to human connection (Mann, himself, wryly alludes to social media’s “antisocial feed”), the poem “Order” paints no such easy picture.
“Order” offers a bittersweet contemplation on the mechanics of a paternal relationship. The palindromic form of the poem re-examines the idea of intimacy and ownership, and questions what it means to claim anything, whether physical or abstract, as one’s own. The speaker recalls a father-son trip to the Computing Station:
in a Monte Carlo Landau
not technically ours. Lexington,
1977. That fall. The color
These lines, inverted in the second half of the poem, become:
1977, that fall, the color
not technically ours, Lexington
in a Monte Carlo Landau
Whether the borrowed vehicle or the shades of a deciduous fall, the things of Mann’s world do not belong to him. They merely belong. “Order,” in re-ordering its own lines, unravels the very notion of ownership.
At the same time, “Order” contemplates the formality wedged between father and son, as if wondering if people can belong to each other in some more intimate way. When the poem’s center converges upon a picture of his father besides the mainframe computer, the speaker pauses to contemplate their “sound of order, the space between us.” The chatter of the machines is met by a human silence. Their “assembly languages” stand in where human ones falter.
Ultimately, the speaker is unable to erode the feeling of formality — the poem, itself, being fit into a strict form — but even so, he finds affirmation in his father’s merely being him. “For once, he was just my father,” the poem ends and begins.
In his depictions of modern gay life, Mann observes a similar intersection between the personal and corporate. The poem “Black Box” depicts the crossover between these two worlds: at the company, the speaker’s sexual orientation is affirmed in the abstract but negated in practice. In the minority outreach program, the speaker recalls how his internship boss referred to her roommates as “simply, The Gays.” In the office: “I let them say, he’s a homosexual, / without an arch correction.”
Whereas “Black Box” examines the present, “Leo & Lance” looks into the past. In this poem, the speaker reflects on his adolescence and recounts his feeling of shame in renting gay porn — first in having to deny his sexuality to the movie rental clerk, then in craving to affirm it through the film. Thinking back, the speaker wonders:
Can anyone even
remember how hard-
won a little corner
of sex was then,
Since the era of movie rentals, the internet has created a space for affirmation and relief where it previously did not exist. Here and throughout the collection, Mann seems to suggest that being gay today is more liberating than before, even as it is nonetheless infected with stigma.
“Leo & Lance” is unflinching in its vulnerability and its depiction of shame, desire, and — lastly — grief. The poem ends on Leo and Lance’s deaths: Leo, who was struck by a truck, and Lance, who died of AIDS complications. Along with the many elegies in this collection, this poem recalls the HIV/AIDS epidemic and carves out a space to memorialize those who have passed.
Returning to this collection four years after its publication, I am reminded how much of Proprietary’s Bay Area — its historic tragedies, its ethical debacles, its corporate transformation — remains relevant, albeit in different ways.
Covid-19 is, undoubtedly, the virus at the forefront of our attention. For this reason, Mann’s meditations on HIV/AIDS — a virus which also sparked discriminatory rhetoric and misinformation, and ravaged minority communities — feel especially poignant today.
Mann’s picture of San Francisco is not only hauntingly elegiac but also hauntingly acute in its portrayal of the corporate Bay. In an interview, Mann explains: “I worked in massive multinationals for a decade, and many of the poems offer, I hope, an insider’s nuanced view of the everyday betrayals—often of language itself—and ethical complications that make up work, in my case in biotechnology and Silicon Valley.”2
While poems, like “Proprietary,” depict the ethics of biotech, “Black Box,” in particular, makes Mann’s point about language clear: language can harbor flippant dismissals and casual cruelties. It can create distance between technicalities and humanity, or worse, harbor inhumanity within technical language.
In Proprietary, Mann’s writing is sharp, in every sense of the word. His language is a scalpel wielded against the fastly metastasizing corporate culture of the Bay. Yet, even between his slashing criticisms and wry witticisms, Mann creates opportunities for play, invites us to hope, and reminds us how: “Thirty years ago we were twacked / when we danced / to “Feed the World” — / we didn’t feed ourselves, / much less the world. / But we had fun. There’s a chance / we can have fun again.”