If ever there were a poetry collection to entice law students and aspiring Supreme Court justices to read more verse and fewer articles on tort reform, Jena Osman’s Corporate Relations is that collection.
Corporate Relations is a sharp, witty, and politically motivated work that follows the historical trajectory of corporate personhood in the United States, a topic readers might otherwise expect to see explored in a didactic and voluminous manuscript penned by a political scientist. Many of the poems here feel as though they were composed by a barrister with an uncontrollable proclivity for verse, which might strike some as a criticism. However, Osman’s poetic gamble with jurisprudence pays off, and in spades. The collection skillfully balances the intellectual demands of its subject matter with unexpected rewards and provocative insights.
Throughout the work, Osman incorporates verbatim dialogue from judicial hearings, using a mixture of poetry and prose to create invented, multi-genre forms. Even though many of the poems are constructed out of little more than “chopped and screwed” legalese, they sidestep the banality of a courtroom hearing and hone in on the ethical charge. A fine example of this appears in “Marshall v. Barlow’s,” a piece that recalls a business owner’s claim that random OSHA inspections are tantamount to unreasonable searches. (The Fourth Amendment strictly forbids unreasonable search and seizure, and in 1978 the Supreme Court upheld Barlow’s objection that a warrant was needed for an unannounced safety inspection. Previously, OSHA inspectors had not been required to obtain search warrants to inspect labor conditions or work sites.) The poem begins:
Overtly and unapologetically philosophical, Osman’s collection is both a satisfying literary experience and a crash course in the history of judicial decisions that have, since the Civil War era, systematically granted corporations Constitutional rights at the expense of the private citizen and even, ironically, the government. The conceit that corporations, in some phantasmagorical way, embody or exhibit personhood is an absurdity Osman extends by asking not only what granting personhood to corporations might mean, but also what “personhood” itself suggests when the term is grotesquely applied to non-animate, non-sentient things. In “The Beautiful Life of Persona Ficta,” the collection’s opening poem, Osman drives this point forward with a series of surreal analogies:
The collection is divided into several sections—each one corresponding to a different amendment from the Bill of Rights—and a number of poems begin with fragmentary judicial dialogue, followed by a contextualizing prose section, followed by more fragments, and concluding with the dissenting opinion of a Supreme Court justice. This back and forth gives each of these poems the feeling of a courtroom hearing in which multiple parties are allowed to speak in various tones, registers, and with different purposes. Despite the incongruity of these poems’ origins and styles, meaning is the through line, and Osman masterfully connects the dots for readers. Even when enjambed lines stand apart from the previous and the following both in grammar and content, meaning can still be gleaned piecemeal. Again, from “Marshall v. Barlow’s”:
Adding weight to the philosophical nature of the collection, Osman quotes liberally from Russian film director and cinema theorist Dziga Vertov. Vertov is used not to comment on corporate personhood per se, but instead to extend the critique of personhood in another direction: if the highest authorities are willing to sustain a metaphorical leap that allows intangible, faceless corporations to be perceived as having a “body,” what does this say about our changing view of the human body itself? The notion that a corporation has a body is, in no uncertain terms, depicted as a technical and semantic vagary akin to the absurdity of comparing the anatomical functions of living beings to the mechanistic functions of machines. The absurdity of mechanizing humans (and vicariously, humanizing corporate machinations) is felt most strongly in the poem “We,” where Osman heavily quotes Vertov:
As a collection that is interested both in humanity, law, and business ethics, Corporate Relations succeeds in asking polemical questions about the finicky relationship between American government and American business, a relationship that is historically fraught with misunderstanding, diversion, and reckless ignorance. One of the most remarkable features of Osman’s poems is their ability to invoke distressing human pathos without engaging in navel-gazing tactics or a close-focus on everyday life.
To inject emotion into a collection that risks reading like reportage, Osman uses jaw-dropping and infuriating examples of Supreme Court rulings that protected profits over people. The most startling ruling is presented in the poem “Pennsylvania Coal Company v. Mahon,” a poem that serves as Corporate Relations’ emotional crux. “Pennsylvania Coal Company v. Mahon” sheds light on a 1922 Supreme Court ruling that overturned the 1921 Pennsylvania Kohler Act. The Kohler Act—meant to protect the public from the endangerment of coal extraction—prohibited mining from underneath land that “supported surface-level buildings.” Even though the state of Pennsylvania specifically prohibited such mining, the Supreme Court maintained the Pennsylvania Coal Company’s legal right to mine directly underneath the city of Scranton, PA because of a deed issued prior to the passing of the law. After the coal was extracted, an unprecedented number of cave-ins occurred in Scranton that threatened human life and dignity. Osman details these events thoroughly:
As an experimental work, Corporate Relations is radical in its expressions and its evocations. It stunningly manages to use the poetic form as a medium to engage in a philosophical debate while still rewarding readers who are patient enough to dissect the poems’ multiple levels. With a similar tongue-in-cheek tone employed by The Daily Show, Osman examines frustrating and laughable court decisions that have repeatedly allowed corporations to evade paying their fair share of taxes, weasel their way out of routine safety inspections, endanger the lives of those unfortunate to live in close proximity to the corporation’s operations, and even defraud the government out of millions of dollars. Though Osman writes with an undeniable sense of humor, the weight of the work is derived from the fact that these laughable decisions are not without tragic consequence.
The poems here are meant to be digested slowly and thoughtfully. The density of the work might be off-putting to some, but for the post-modern reader who willingly engages with bricolage and intertextuality the experience is unique and profound. Osman demonstrates that poetry need not be constrained to lyrical dalliance and observational intrigue, and with this collection she expertly demonstrates that poetic language can serve as an educational tool and a political statement without sacrificing its appreciable entertainment value.
Read Caleb Beckwith’s recent interview with Osman at The Conversant
Corporate Relations is available from Burning Deck
Eric Howerton writes fiction, cooks mushrooms, gardens, practices screaming, collects masks, plays poker, skis, and does not believe in the ontology of half sandwiches. His writing has appeared/is forthcoming in PANK, The Locust, Plaza, theNewerYork, The Legendary, Dying Goose, The Higgs Weldon, Night Train, Grey Sparrow, Duck and Herring Pocket Field Guides, Johnny America, and Haggard and Halloo, as well as several alt-weeklies in Texas and New Mexico. He is a former fiction editor of Gulf Coast Magazine.