This essay was first published in Review 31 in October 2019.
One of the most striking things about contemporary capitalism is the amount of work it needs. No one ever stops. Holidays are work, too, as ‘the search for tranquillity has been overtaken by the quest for the perfect selfie’, as a recent Guardian article has it. Going to the loo is an opportunity to produce social value, flicking through advertising companies disguised as social platforms; meals accumulate cultural value; degrees tie us to economic production forever. Value is the only universal goal to attain – the goal that justifies everything. All our time is given to its reproduction: we stop producing commodities and instead focus on turning the body into a commodity – focus on the accumulation of knowledge, likes, followers. And so our time is abstracted, always orbiting the production machine of capital.
If maintaining the body is already an act that produces value for a system that needs everyone to constantly produce it, then there is no way out. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, in Inventing the Future, try to find the shape of this monstrous problem that invents the body and turns it into something tradable, something that can expand and be accumulated, calling capitalism ‘an aggressively expansive universal, from which efforts to segregate a space of autonomy are bound to fail. Withdrawal, resistance, localism and autonomous spaces represent a defensive game against an uncompromising and incessantly encroaching capitalism.’ It takes our time and turns it into space, and, as we are consumed in that space, our time is taken more and more.
We work to accumulate value; to pay rent and eat and go on holiday; to move our time into the mythical future when all the value is accumulated, when we have finally laboured enough. But the more we work the more we have to keep working. The body is damaged by labour and must be rebuilt by working on social media platforms, on gym memberships and social codes. Eugenia Lapteva brings this up in a recent article, finding a paradox in the ‘promise of peace’: ‘work frantically in order to get a break only so that you can remain active: to follow, like, upload, improve and adjust; to keep up to date with personal projects, exercise routines, latest Netflix series, political debates, the list goes on.’
To get out of it, then, in the totality of work, we have to find something that positions us in a different spatial relation to the machine that takes all our time. Contemporary poetry is working inside that space, the space where work can’t quite be work because it doesn’t produce value. In a literal sense, poetry makes no money (it’s a tiny industry, so it’s outside of the central machine of capital taking time and turning it into space). But also in a cultural sense. Poetry has always had an inverse relationship to politics. Plato kept poets out of his Republic, and Aristotle thought poets couldn’t be trusted because they mediate the truth, distorting it in rhetorical flare, while politicians spoke directly. Now it’s the opposite. Politicians are expected to lie, blatantly to flaunt any self-serving ideology, to get a foot over everyone else, while poets are expected to be clear and meaningful, almost like soothsayers.
Now, when work is a totality and the only way of creating life is by producing economic value – even if it’s mediated first by cultural value or somatic value, the data or the movement will be accumulated by a company and economic value will somehow be produced – the slow space of poetry feels like resistance against the productive machine of speed and labour. Poetry brings space to its production, rather than producing space; empty space is a productive part of its experience. This removes the cultural value of it being a representative of some other kind of social space.
In Under Representation: The Racial Regime of Aesthetics, David Lloyd writes that the condition of subjectivity in modern capitalism is based on the body’s ability to represent a universal form. Bodies allowed into certain privileged categories like white, male, European, and so on, represent sites of accumulation – spaces where value can be put, where people’s labour time can be stored. Other bodies – bodies disallowed the privilege of those categories – represent spaces of labour, of extraction, where value and time are taken to apply more space to the privileged bodies. In poetry, though, space and time are presented together, not represented by another part of the machine. The suggestion stops at the poem because it contains both time and space within itself: it is a slow art, an art in empty space, whose space is impassable, another part of the work that you must slow down to discover. Space is not a suggested possible value that comes on the condition of more work: it is there in the beginning, already part of the poem surrounded by blank space, necessitating the reader’s removal from productive time.
This slow presentation of blank space that doesn’t seem to represent anything has a particularly powerful relation to contemporary capitalist work. There isn’t really anything to be done with a poem. It produces affect without conducting it into value-production. There are ways that value is produced, inescapably – by posting poems on Instagram, by building cultural value for companies that invest in poetry prizes. But the art itself as an act of production makes affect without making economic value. In Rachael Allen’s collection, Kingdomland (Faber & Faber, 2019), this comes out with violent clarity. Every character is caught up in constant labour, especially the unpaid feminised labour of domestic reproduction. The female bodies in this book are always at work, steering through a machine of attacks that find new ways to impose brutal violence at every turn the domestic worker makes. The scenes presented are never simply abstract forms used to comment on the limitations of the feminised body in patriarchal capitalism; they are actively working, barely paid, exploited.
The flyleaf’s blurb hides the work of the poems’ characters, celebrating their ‘[u]nexplained violences and uncanny incidents’. Yet, exactly what is so powerful about this collection is that each instance of violence is explained. The violence is constant and ubiquitous because the feminised bodies, in their abstract positions between global loss and excessive domestic presence, are always working, never getting anything for it.
The reproductive labour of the bodies in the book brackets every page, as in the first poem ‘the girl floats up/ to the billowing ceiling’, and in the final poem ‘the girls float up/ to the billowing ceiling’. The only path for the feminised body of the girl is reproduction, producing more versions of herself to do the same thing. But every time the poem gets close to the labour of its character, they turn to smoke. The body is endlessly commodified, abstracted into nothing but value, comparable to every other domestic object around it. From the very first line, a command to make us look – to involve our own labour of reading in the working women – is abstracted as it burns. ‘Watch the forest burn/ with granular heat.’ (‘/’) It is pulled into pieces, tiny grains. This won’t stop happening for the whole book.
The burning body being abstracted into distant grains is balanced with a chocking feeling from the feminised body always working behind the poems. In the second poem, ‘Promenade’, she is ‘Openly wanting something/ like the opened-up lungs of a singer’. That desire is so physical – such a material response to the constantly burning bodies all around. In the long section towards the end, ‘Landscape for a Dead Woman’, a body is at constant work seeking another dead body, ‘farm[ing] all the grief’ like hard agricultural labour. At times, it becomes the body, finding its own death; at times, it seeks something else. She wants water, liquidation, something fluid between these very physical wounds imposed by men, but the knowledge is smoke again: ‘burn all documents/ rescue the women’.
These poems have been described by some reviewers as dreams, strange fantasies, but they could not be more real. I sweat as I read this book. There is so much heat, so much work inside it. Like the feminised bodies, we need liquid, we need a breath of air, when it finishes. The voice running over the poems, if it can be labelled singular in any way, accumulates the moments of violence each body suffers. ‘Women’s bodies collect materials the way/ metals accrue in organs’ (‘The Girl of Situations’). She picks up a little code of each violent moment and carries it on to the next. But it never changes. This very act of carrying is itself part of what forms her as a dangerous body, as the unpaid labourer – she carries violence, so they are scared of her, so they impose more violence on her. ‘I live in skirt-behaviours round the social club, where men and/ cheap beer will spin you till you’re sick’ (‘The Girl of Situations’).
She can never escape the spinning violence because the feminised body itself is made to accumulate violence, to be limited by exactly the patriarchal branding that makes it reproduce more versions of itself, making more labourers. This comes out explicitly in the final three poems. In ‘Apostles Burning’, we see that the body and its additions are nothing natural – they are created by the production of value – as she
Stepped into the oil
spill like a siren
emerged dyed black
backed with the wings
of a tanker’s logo
The extraction of value as oil is all that makes this body, and all that gives it the possibility of moving, with branded wings.
In the following poem, ‘Banshee’, she attempts an attack on an archetype of the body causing all this violence. But it’s already impossible. The man’s body exists in the future tense, already surpassing the violence she has to labour in constantly because the man is paid, the man passes over those metal shards she accumulates in her body, the man remains singular while the woman reproduces, made anonymous by multiplicity. He exists already in a future he has created precisely so that the feminised body won’t bring in its violence. ‘He’ll sit by the window/ at an innocent date’ are two lines that could not describe this complex relation any better.
The chanting rhythm of the short lines builds throughout this penultimate poem until the final page. The lines are separated, giving the poem room to breathe, ironising the ‘Lungless’ girls who still drift in the black pond. The branded logo is removed because the poem has no title, and the water is charged with energy. Something is changing. Allen does not explicitly provide the key to what, and the collection is better for this open possibility. She describes the violence of existing in the reproduction of capital and all its ideological and physical restrictions – the domestic space, the body, the economic and existential periphery, the badly paid or unpaid jobs – and once we are enraged by all these scenes, she leaves us to dedicate our anger to something else. It is an extremely powerful feeling, to be left in the smoky ruins after 70 pages of acutely described violence.
Gboyega Odubanjo’s first pamphlet, While I Yet Live (Bad Betty Press, 2019), expresses the same pointless misery of life in racial capitalism, using a similarly mechanical, crunching verse to feel the weight of labour and reproduction, but this time in reverse. Allen’s collection is always now, in a present that has no future, a long and sad day of domestic labour that will never end because another body will occupy the same position. Odubanjo’s attacks us from behind, running up with the evidence of History to shake up anyone who thought work in capitalism had any meaning or stability.
The very first poem throws the past beyond the present and watches it bounce back in our faces – there is no future in which it can rest. Taking after César Vallejo’s very 20th-century-man lament at his own coming death on a rainy Thursday in Paris, Odubanjo sees his own death everywhere:
i will die in london in the neighbourhood
i grew up in outside the town hall
on the high street.
His body is everywhere, lost in statistics that count him as just another dead black body. They don’t even distinguish between perpetrator and victim: ‘i will have been stabbed/ and my killer will look just like me’.
Such lines that collapse the world around the reader come up all the time in While I Yet Live. Every time you think you have a grasp of something – a poet’s self-mourning, a clever trick that confronts poetic inheritance – it is smashed from your hand, thrown all around you, and you are left with yourself to look at. You know whether you will look like his killer, whether that will be you on the news, or whether you will not.
But, like Allen, he doesn’t just give us the one criticism from his own point of view and then leave. He shows how it is reproduced, how that is all he can do in this society. In ‘Confessions in 3/4 Timing’, he contemplates the playlist he’ll put on when he inevitably commits a series of crimes. Born into that body, it is his only (non-)future. But the lines are cut by spaces, gaps between thoughts that force us to wait for what we know. We know we live in racist capitalism; we know his body is created by violence to continue violence to justify violence against it. But he doesn’t give us the satisfaction. He sets us up, then stands there, waiting:
be ready for it all like just murdered a man
playlist robbed a bank now driving off cool playlist
After ‘like’, we have to wait on a huge empty bridge to know what it’s like, even though we already know.
Later in the same poem, he shows the limitations of reproduction – how there is nothing to do but reproduce the violence that made him. This is so easily done, with such a fun and energetic gesture, that it is dizzying to see such a complex history of violence spoken in four lines:
i told you i wanted my mother’s tribal mark
tattooed onto my stomach so it’d be like i
birthed my own africa whose lines i’d drawn myself
but all that i want is to brand and be branded
First, being an Other in the geography of Western statistical thinking, he can only dream of Africa, then he is coded as African forever, stuck in the past, then he reproduces that limitation, and then finally he is convinced by the ideology that he must impose these limitations on others in order to free himself. And then we’re left in a huge gap, three spacious lines just to say ‘i beg’. It is terrifying to be inside these poems, the violence they confront with laughter, a kind of exclusive laughter that you want more and more of, like trying to get close to the cool kid whose jokes you don’t get – even though they might be at your expense. And after it all, when you’re panting after the branding/branded violence, after the ‘moon into blood become night’ (‘Holy Roller’), we are just left in openness.
Allen’s collection takes the air away from the first moment and then finally alludes to the painful absence that has been holding all the way through, but Odubanjo leaves these gaps throughout, jumping from side to side: are we the chokers or the choked? Are we gasping for air or holding his head beneath the water?
‘I’ and ‘JOHN 19:28’ cut the words out of History, bringing us something totally deformed that we cannot help but fall into. Slices are cut from an Enoch Powell speech, from John’s testament, and the feeling is splintering. Odubanjo is not going to hand over his pain for you to read. He will just cut some bits out of your world and show them to you.
In the final poem, ‘Swimming’, the endless pain of labour that goes nowhere is exposed in skeletal, pounding lines, as physical and totally there as the final three poems in Kingdomland. The pursuit ‘over ocean’ is already wrenched from possibility: ‘hoping we go’, where the weather and the world fit the body in its suffering:
weathered by a toneless
sky grey /
The colour of skin is coming off on the clouds as these labouring bodies are evaporated. All we are left with is the action, the constant work that leads to nothing but the body’s own eradication: ‘i stroke i stroke’ comes again and again through the poem. ‘i stroke and there’s water’. ‘still i stroke’. All he can do is work, but it goes nowhere, does nothing.
This is a collection of resisting work. Odubanjo does not attack with his labouring body, producing even more for the benefit of the production-machine. He just takes things out, leaving gaps, presenting voids. This is the pamphlet of no work, and it is so stimulating to read that fiercely contemporary message against capitalism, bearing its teeth into all our crap jobs, our ridiculous rents, our impossible futures, and then just dangling there.
Both Kingdomland and While I Yet Live show the complex structures that constantly reenact the impossibility of non-conforming bodies becoming full subjects in our world where (impossibly) becoming a subject is the only precondition for participation in public life. Subjectivity, in this capitalist work ideology, is based on representing a universal form – based on being a site of accumulation, a place of value-production. Poetry resists this spatialising movement. So while every moment of constant work is another restriction on the feminised and racialised body – in different ways, but both with the result of rejection to the periphery – these poets that place resistance to work in the striking snap of slowness, the antithesis of productive capital, can withdraw a subversive way of being from beneath the sweaty bodies constantly performing for the totality of labour. Both these books are so physical, throwing material anger at the mechanism that needs more workers. There is nothing dreamy or fantastical in their sweaty scenes.
These are books about work – books that refuse to work because they know where capitalist work leads: to futureless death and endless reproduction. Their slowness is resistance, and not at all passive or docile. It’s furious, and it riles up the reader, but it needs the slow pace of empty space to throw the body from its laborious well-worn path. If you want to find a way of refusing the infinite repetitions of capitalist work and its totality of meaningless, self-aggrandising performances, the critical turn in contemporary poetry is a good place to find some inspiration.