Please Hold

Ciaran O’Driscoll

There have been several poems about phone calls, like Wole Soyinka’s ‘Telephone Conversation’ and Fleur Adcock’s ‘The Telephone Call’, to which O’Driscoll’s poem is closer in mood. Like Adcock, O’Driscoll writes about the development of the technology and its use, presenting it as a scourge.

‘This is the future’ begins the poem and the phrase is repeated like a mantra along with the title phrase ‘Please hold’, the two locking the poem into a repetitive monotony like the phone call it describes. The long main stanza suggests this sense of entrapment too, as the narrator struggles with an automated answering system he refers to as ‘the robot’, a word that appears twelve times, each use reminding us of the impersonality of the system within which the speaker makes no progress. Ironically, it is a system designed for communication, but no communication occurs in the call in the poem.

O’Driscoll uses several all-too recognisable clichés from such automated telephone systems, such as:

‘Please say Yes or No.
Or you can say Repeat or Menu.’

There are references too to ‘countless options’ and the inevitable tinned ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ while callers are held. As the poem progresses, O’Driscoll shows the speaker becoming more frustrated, ironically appropriating the empty enthusiasm of the ‘robot’ voice with ‘a wonderful telephone number’ and ‘a great account number’. His own verbs move from ‘give’ to ‘shout’ to ‘scream’ before his intemperate ‘Eine fucking Kleine Nachtmusik’. This makes the automated comment that ‘We appreciate your patience’ both comic and frustrating. Paradoxes illustrate the absurdity of the situation:

‘…This is the future.
We are already there and it’s the same as the present.’

Time has no meaning, talking involves no communication and ‘countless options’ never ‘meet my needs’. The speaker’s wife’s comments are as robotic as the automated answering system. This absurdity, combined with the repeated words and phrases, create a kind of comic nightmare of contemporary life. This is confirmed by the short concluding stanza, with its staccato sentences and its repetition of words and rhymes, trapping the reader into ideas of conformity: ‘Please do what you’re told.’