Published September 28th 2018 by Smokestack Books
Author: Martin Hayes
Star rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Opening line (first stanza of opening poem):
“a man I work with
cries every time it gets too busy
throws his head back onto his fat neck
and stares up into the ceiling
all the while muttering under his breath
how thankful he is that he still has a job
and hasn’t been allowed to die yet”
Synopsis (from Smokestack website):
Martin Hayes’ new collection is a roar of frustrated rage and pain at the way we live and work in the twenty-first century. It’s a book about 11-hour shifts, sick-days, lay-offs, computer systems crashing and the joy of Friday afternoons. Dermot, Stacey, Shaq, Big Bri, Dexter the old-timer, Antoine, Mohammed, Jim the Letch and Harry the head supervisor work for Phoenix Express couriers, located somewhere ‘between Stockholm Street and Syndrome Way’, making money for other people and trying to make themselves heard above the roar of an economic system that ‘has us in its mouth and is shaking us about in its teeth’.
I first started reading this collection of poetry while on the tram to work at a brand new job. Which is apt, in a way, because the entire book is a collection of ‘work poems’. Having read all of them, they are much more than that. ‘Work’ is the core theme, but it’s everything else that that subject allows the author to write about and explore, and the way he does it, which makes this collection unforgettable.
I raced through the first hundred or so pages, and then the Christmas holidays kicked in, and the work poems stayed on my shelf until, you guessed it, I was on the tram again for my evening shift. And then I raced through the rest of the book.
The poems within are long, conversational, and have a storytelling quality to them. Imagine if someone wrote a novel entirely about their work-life, to explore their colleagues, their 11-hour shifts, the daily grind…and then instead of having it in novel format, they transformed it into a poetry collection. That’s the kind of form we get here. It’s a novelistic set of poems, with recurring characters, and the focus on one company, Phoenix Express.
“how do you explain to this man
that he is being made redundant
because Phoenix Express is cutting back
The book itself looks like a novel too, and when I showed it to a fellow poet friend when he asked what I’m currently reading, he was shocked when I told him it was a poetry collection, and inspired when I said that it reads like a story.
What makes these poems ‘easy to read’ is the flow and the directness of the words. Hayes taps into something ‘real’. He doesn’t try to construct metaphors for work/work life: he tells it like it is. There are facts in here, awful truths that can’t be anything other than what they are. It would be an injustice not to write these things. What makes it even better is that Hayes knows this world, he’s worked in it, and we’re reading a first-hand account of it. We can’t argue with this poetry, because you can’t argue with the truth of someone’s genuine experience. And that’s what I love about it as an entire collection.
The nature of the kind of workplace he’s talking about, and the life the employee’s live seems so far away from poetry that it’s almost a miracle, no, a blessing, that these poems have made it out into the world to tell its story. And the series of poems from page 155-174 reference the world of poetry that people might assume is true, but is a bit of parody of what it’s actually like. It’s a move away from the standard work poems, creating poet characters in a writing community that makes the act of writing poetry seem almost flimsy and pointless when compared to the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into the life of these workers from Phoenix Express, and then into the majority of the poems we’re reading.
This was a revelation to me, because the ‘poetry parody’ section (as I’m going to call it) does contain some truth, and it made me stop and think ‘whoa’. The structure is done through imaginary Facebook exchanges: poets posting their poems, sharing insights into their process, writing feedback, congratulating friends on performances etc. etc. And this is a world that isn’t far away from some of the things I see on my Facebook feed, except this version is almost a caricature of it. For example:
“Poet Tom hasn’t written for over 14 minutes. He is pacing up and down his study unable to work out what is going on.”
Once you’ve read this section and return to the work poems, you see them in a whole new light. You see the real-ness of them. You feel like you’re not sat at home listening to a ‘playlist for inspiration’, you’re in the thick of it, trying to grab a few moments to read on your commute even though it’s really busy, and you wonder why you’re in this situation, but feel better about being in it with a bunch of poems spouting real-work-talk at you.
It’s by no means a happy collection, in the way that watching the news isn’t like marathoning episodes of your favourite TV show. This one is like sitting down with a book, not for escapism, but for enlightenment about the world around you, but enlightenment in terms of ‘this is real and happening, and it’s outside of your periphery/not included in your overall worldview but it doesn’t make it any less valid’. And I feel better for having read it, because although a lot of poems speak a single truth, Martin has taken a truth and given us a whole book, defiantly presenting it to us in a way that we can’t avoid.
“how am I to explain to my fellow controllers that everything we have
gone through has been worth it because it has enabled me to write
these poems that have kept me inches away from insanity and which
have made the glory of the nights worth more than the horrors
Link to the book on Goodreads: Roar!