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HOLDING THE ROOM: ON HOLLY PESTER’S ‘COMIC TIMING’

The last poem in Holly Pester’s first collection COMIC TIMING (Granta, 2021) is called ‘Villette’; it shares its title with Charlotte Brontë’s 1853 novel about Lucy Snowe, an impoverished and extremely truculent governess. Pester’s book is divided into four theatrical acts, and this poem closes Act 4: although, strictly speaking, the collection ends with the coda ‘Heavy ending’, ‘Villette’ is the last thing that happens before the actors make their bow. In it, the voice of the speaker and the actions of Brontë’s protagonist are unified, like two film reels playing simultaneously: ‘In the novel Villette,’ it begins, ‘either I or Lucy Snowe live and work in a girls’ school that either she or I found in a small French town.’ The poem continues, explaining that I / Lucy have recently suffered a romantic disappointment with Dr Graham, their ‘heavy and imaginative crush’, and resolve to bury his letters, which they have invested with a ‘devotional adoration’. The poem ends in an ecstasy of submission:

 

In this gesture / in my gesture, Lucy Snowe rejects the possibility of possessing the letter. She applies / I apply a fantastical value to the letter. The letter passes into an earthed state of absence. I use / Lucy uses burial as a way to disown the letter and to refuse being privately subjected by the letter. She instead / I instead ecstatically ritualise her poverty / my poverty, and her otherness / my otherness to ownership of objects, and evacuate the self into love.

 

VILLETTE, although well received at the time of its publication, disappeared from the mainstream literary consciousness soon after, and remained mostly ignored for the best part of a century. In 1970, Kate Millett offered a radical reading of the novel in SEXUAL POLITICS that drew on earlier understandings (notably Virginia Woolf’s) of it as a proto-feminist text. Lucy, for Millett, is a study in the effects of a ‘male-supremacist society’ upon a woman’s psyche: ‘She is bitter and she is honest; a neurotic revolutionary full of conflict, back-sliding, anger, terrible self-doubt, and an unconquerable determination to win through.’

 

Later on, Millett ascribes another quality to this neurotic revolutionary: to the many obstacles that beset her course, not least the twin poisonous blossoms of respectability and misogyny that characterise gender and class relations in the nineteenth century, ‘Lucy replies with phenomenal intellectual effort.’ In COMIC TIMING, despite the constant and sometimes beguiling presence of death – ‘Odd Kill’ declares ‘As a life dies it’s interesting because that’s when it can accommodate / existence’ – Pester, too, responds to the many patronising cruelties of existence with a phenomenal intellectual effort. In doing so, she weaves the difficult, the boring and the abject into a poetics of pathos and defiance. In an interview with FRIEZE magazine Pester, talking about the final verse of ‘Villette’, invokes Simone Weil’s concept of decreation – loosely put, renouncing your autonomous self in order to fully love God and the world – as a serious influence on the whole collection:

 

[T]o be in love is to occupy a space without ego or self. So, it is a turn […] from an unpropertied subject who can’t love or have a self, to one who can only love without property as a condition of that love. For Weil, it’s God; for Charlotte Brontë in Villette (1853), it’s a big, gothic, passionate other; for me, in this book, it’s something more like banal survival. Love is a personal and radical resource.

 

Weil might also plausibly be termed a neurotic revolutionary – Chris Kraus in ALIENS AND ANOREXIA(2000) calls her an ‘admirable freak’ – a communist sympathiser and dedicated anti-fascist who was suspicious of uncritical collective thinking and party politics but lived out her own inextinguishable belief in the communality of human existence through the (eventually fatal) deprivations she imposed on her own body. Anne Carson, in her 2002 essay ‘Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete, And Simone Weil Tell God’, defines the titular concept of decreation as a program for ‘getting herself out of the way so as to arrive at God.’ Like Holly Pester’s I/Lucy Snowe evacuating the self into love, Weil is striving towards a solution to the paradox of presence. As Carson puts it, ‘I cannot go toward God in love without bringing myself along. And so in the deepest possible sense I can never be alone with God. I can only be alone “with” God.’

 

Can we ever get ourselves out of the way? VILLETTE is a novel that dramatizes the body, not least in its situating of Lucy as both sexually and financially precarious. COMIC TIMING, too, pays painfully close attention to the embodied ecstasies of precarity, and moments from VILLETTE seem to reappear throughout. Lucy, bitter and honest, looks hard at bodies: in a famous passage, she deconstructs a painting of Cleopatra, that familiar symbol of the male gaze. Paying cursory attention to the subject’s nudity, Lucy mostly observes with dispassionate disapproval the marks of undeserved luxury and alienated labour in her surroundings: describing the goblets and vases as ‘pots and pans’, she thinks Cleopatra ‘appeared in hearty health, strong enough to do the work of two plain cooks’ and so ‘had no business to lounge away the noon on a sofa’. Paul, Lucy’s didactic sometime suitor, is extremely disturbed when he finds her, ‘How dare you, a young person, sit coolly down, with the self-possession of a garçon and look at that picture?’ Act 3 of COMIC TIMING, opens with the poem ‘Eccentric Attire’, in which the speaker declares that ‘The attitude of my body is a boy / wearing a cravat / loose around his neck’. In both of these texts, escaping the self involves getting out of your gender (or rather, trying to). In order to occupy a position of critique, Lucy has to discard the precarities of her body (female, poor) and acquire the ‘self-possession’ of a young man: a garçon, although etymologically implicated in service work, looks with the freedom of a man. The ‘boy’ in Pester’s text is also a performance – ‘a satire / a dumbshow accident’– and one that produces the conditions of life, or rather, alleviates the relentless pressure of being perceived as a woman, not only by others but by yourself: ‘my boy works hard to exist’.

 

*

 

One way to get yourself out of the way is by writing a lyric poem or telling a joke: the self is so painfully, verbally present, in its red nose and clown shoes, that it dissolves. This isn’t enough, though. The sublime release of ‘Villette’, that ecstatic evaporation into obscurity, isn’t how COMIC TIMING ends. We have to wait for the curtain. ‘Heavy ending’ brings the body back with horrible aplomb:

 

A great aunt, a dangerously ill alcoholic, is in a hotel room. It is very 1960s. Her exasperated husband is sitting next to her on the bed. He is saying to her that he cannot go on; that he will leave if she doesn’t stop drinking. He leaves the room. The great aunt does a calculation: she cannot stop drinking, she cannot live without him, and so she cannot go on. She climbs onto the window ledge and is balancing on the cusp when her husband comes back into the room and says he is sorry, he will never leave. She turns to see him and falls.

 

But even the fall – this grisly joke – isn’t the final word. Another text, perhaps the second part of ‘Heavy ending’, perhaps an unnamed postscript, sits in an undulating column at the centre of the last page, listing with grim glee crunchy biological words: uncus, slap, procreative, a body part. The final lines unite the falling aunt – is anything more horrifyingly present than a body that has just plunged from view? – and the figure of the poet, who can finally stop the show:

 

you really held the room

I mean you really

held the room

 

‘Heavy ending’ sits strangely within time: ‘It is very 1960s’. Does that mean it is actually taking place during the 1960s? Whose great aunt is this, anyway? In her fall, she is caught in a linguistic paradox: not living (the title, read in its cruellest way, tells us that) but not yet dead. She cannot go on, but she never quite stops, either.

 

In the FRIEZE interview, Pester refers to comedy as ‘a genre of time, or an effect on sequential time’. She continues:

 

Events or instances are funny; forms of time are comedic. There are crossovers, of course. Slipping on a banana peel, terminating a pregnancy, falling asleep at your desk, tenancy contracts – for me, these are all in the comedy-tragedy continuum in that they are material collapses of time or narrative. In each, something changed in the course of the body and the course of the person’s life, and they sort of fell into one another.

 

This notion of the stuff of poetry being ‘material collapses of time or narrative’ can be read alongside the theatrical structure of COMIC TIMING as Pester’s productive challenge to the idea of the lyric poem as a single repeatable speech act, an event in itself, understood in opposition to narrative poems, which recount an event after it has happened. If poems constitute their own specific temporalities (like time zones: reading the title poem, for example, you’re in Comic Mean Time) and these temporalities, for Pester, are pockets of time where poetry emerges from a material collapse, then for these individual events or moments to be linked together in acts suggests that the experience of reading the collection is intentionally disruptive. You experience the poems as being related to each other, but without a clear sequential narrative drive, or even, given the shifting speaker, a consistent cast of characters: at Q&A sessions about the book, Pester has compared the form to that of Aristophanic comedy, with its wandering chorus who speak collectively.

 

Pester is often described as a sound poet, and performance is central to her work, although in her 2019 essay ‘The Politics Of Delivery (Against Poet Voice)’ she makes a clear distinction between its ‘sounded aspect’ and performance poetry as a genre. In the essay, she proposes an understanding of poetry rooted in the provisionality of speech, meaning, and the conditions of context and experience: ‘What are you prepared to say and, next? And how will that change what you just said?’ In COMIC TIMING, each poem has this transitional relationship to time, its meaning shifting in relation to what precedes and what follows. The material conditions and events that structure the text – having a landlord, having a commute, having a body, having a childhood, having a job, having an abuser – are not hierarchised, but experienced concurrently. That is to say, these poems aren’t individual meditations about what it’s like to pay rent, or have an abortion, or be hungry all the time, or feel sick, or work, or be depressed, or have a family; rather, each poem about work is also a poem about paying rent, having an abortion, feeling sick, being depressed, being hungry all the time, having a family. The comedy-tragedy continuum of the collection and of life is that these things all happen at the same time. You can’t take a break from having a body so you can concentrate solely on having a landlord.

 

Having said that, I don’t mean to fall into what Veronica Forrest-Thomson describes in 1978’s POETIC ARTIFICE as ‘the trap of thinking that complex grammar or form in a poem is simply a way to reflect that modern living is complex’ – that technique is a means rather than an end. In the prosodic textures of Pester’s poems, the cadences of almost-natural speech are rendered uncanny, disrupted by a propulsive drive towards weird sounds that are so daily, so bodily, that to see them in a poem is, at a basic level, unbearable. I’m thinking particularly – almost retching as I do, language rising in my throat – of the words ‘dip’ and ‘lumps’ as they appear in the poems ‘Dip’ and ‘The End Smell Where English Died’ respectively. In one sense, ‘Dip’ is a poem about being poor and being a child – ‘constantly hungry    doesn’t she feed you’ – and ‘The End Smell’ is about the experience of abuse, figured as ‘the conjuring of madness / outside of yours in the nursery of another’. But why, in ‘Dip’, does the slippery but coherent tumble of ‘oil the statement abnormal / I need money to live’ hit me less squarely in my solar plexus than the poem’s opening:

 

what were we raised on?

smelly pink and orange dip

The dip is from class

 

Why, in ‘The End Smell’, does the line ‘an abusive relation makes you immediately difficult’, a statement that strikes me as profound, a statement I agree with, feel like it’s less physically true than the lines that come after: ‘got soft lumps on it’, and:

 

dig your hand into the shell

pull out soft lumps there are lumps and there are abusers

the abused dig into the past to pull out their lumps

 

Why does the phrase ‘now life lumps are gone’ make me feel like I’m going to cry? What do I think these lumps are? Why are they meaningful? I wish I could tell you, but I think the point is that my language is dissolving, because we’re at the limit.

 

*

 

COMIC TIMING renders time as an economic state, primarily in relation to the concepts of death and rent. Indeed, in an austerity-ravaged, stealth-privatised 2021, we might say that rather than the two idiomatic certain things in life being death and taxes, they’re actually death and rent. In the poem that opens Act 2, ‘Time for me to resemble my deep shock’, death is figured as a state of being, distinct from any causative event: ‘When she says I’m dead after falling off her horse, she’s not saying it in response to the question, are you hurt? It’s not the answer to that question. She would have said it anyway’. This ‘she’ is later linked to but not definitively identified as ‘Holly’, the poem’s speaking I: ‘Imagine being able to say that?’ the speaker asks, continuing, ‘I say it all the time. Holly, this is your appointment date, I’m dead’. This death is made possible – brought to life – by the animating power of speech, as saying and being are figured as mutually constitutive:

 

Being a poet being a woman being dead being ecstatic or a cyclist is just as saying I am a poet, I am a woman, I am dead, I am ecstatic and a cyclist. You can say any one of those things about yourself and if you do it is an excellent example of timing. There’s no chronology of proof that’s relevant to any of them.

 

Timing, then, is opposed to chronology: it exists outside of the boring jurisdiction of evidence and accounting. But being a poet being a woman being dead being ecstatic or a cyclist does not free you from life’s dreary compulsions. The final line of ‘Time for me to resemble’, ‘Stop telling me what year it is. Stop telling me what time it is. How old I am’, feels like a response – a refusal – to the two poems that open Act 1. ‘Long’ makes a dedication ‘To those who began the year being / bullied, violently shaken’, rooting the reader in the time of the poem’s composition by implying that the reader knows what the speaker doesn’t yet:

 

Shout at me the time

Get into me the time

It’s 2000 and 19

 

Immediately after ‘Long’ comes ‘Thirty-Six’, a poem about an approaching birthday in which life is figured from the Marilyn Monroe epigraph onwards as both a condition and a performance of death: ‘you must be – / alive – when looking dead’. In this poem, work, rent and debt don’t just structure time – the calculations at the calendar’s edge, the standing order approaching – but obstruct its flow:

 

Today I got up.

I was 36 for too long and for one more week.

The day is dragging on the time to come.

I am stupid in a room that I owe for.

I could stay here forever.

 

Centring two figures who died at 36, Monroe and ‘Granddad’, whose respective arts –acting, painting – ‘hold up’ and ‘alienate act from time’, the poem constructs a ‘writing heritage’ that is a history of blockage and the foreshortening of potential: ‘ideas are building up’ in the rented room that represents debt and bondage, a ‘wage heritage’. The mental atrophy of precarity repeats: ‘I am stupid for getting into debt paying rent’; ‘I am stupid in a room that I owe for’. Ageing – biological time – is divorced from its presupposed natural inevitability, as 37 represents a boundary line between the time of the tenant and the time of ownership – ‘I am on the verge of an age I have not accounted for and cannot afford’ – and the accumulative logic of neoliberalism is revealed to be false: ‘I get older and have lesser, my debt to the room is morer / I work harder but am lazier, tireder, there is more to do’. Unable to be ‘bound or unbound’, bearing ‘a room and a time’ but with no possibility of security save ‘marriage / or a great big prize’, the speaker is instead locked into a paradox of productivity, stymied both by the impossibility of working productively and the necessity of making enough money from work to pay for the room, the vistas of mental possibility reduced to bodily need and performance: ‘transfixed to heartbeat and bowing’.

 

Pester attributes the Monroe epigraph to Jacqueline Rose’s 2014 WOMEN IN DARK TIMES. In this book, which begins, ‘It is time to return to what feminism has to tell us’, Rose compares Monroe to the Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg and the German artist Charlotte Salomon: all ‘survivors’, although ‘each could also be said to have died before her time’. A working-class child of multiple Depression-era foster homes, Monroe was characterised by a virulently misogynist press as greedy and vain, particularly when she agitated for more money in her studio contracts. In fact, she was intensely political – Rose believes ‘the audience she most cared about were the workers’ – and remained entirely alive to the horror of financial need and the exploitation it engenders. The most photographed woman in the world, Monroe increasingly saw her image, alongside draconian studio contracts and the McCarthyism sweeping Hollywood, as an impediment to her craft: towards the end of her life she said to the photographer Georges Belmont, recalling Kraus’s characterisation of Weil, ‘I wanted to be an artist, not an erotic freak’. Rose emphasises the connection between Monroe’s sex appeal and the presence of death in her pictures, citing Laura Mulvey’s observation in DEATH 24X A SECOND (2006) that, because moving image is an illusion created by rapid sequences of still shots, in cinema there is ‘death in every frame’. In Pester’s text, Monroe’s suicide is a response to a shift in terms – ‘something about the contract she was in lapsed’ – and manages to reverse the lines of her own poem: she ‘died at 36 and continuously’, or, she looks alive while being dead.

 

When you are a tenant you are in two relationships with your landlord simultaneously: a transactional consumer relationship, structured by capitalist logics of supply and demand, and an ideological relationship in which everything about your life is held in thrall to an absent presence. Your time, your possessions, who you invite in, your pets, how loudly you can talk or walk or play music, what food you can cook and when: theoretically, your landlord can reach out and touch all of these things with their feudal hands. Unlike any other ‘service provider’, a landlord can exert power over how you use what you pay them for. In ‘Tell them I love it here’ this power becomes a conceptual hold over whether or not the tenant even actually exists at all: ‘You are let / It means permit / to Live’. Structured at first as a conversation between the speaker and someone else about current or perhaps prospective landlords – ‘Tell them I love it here / drinking any tiny line of serious life I can’ – the poem ends with the space the speaker is permitted to occupy repeatedly reduced until it is just a collection of furnishings on the pavement, ‘an old white chair’, but even that is borrowed:

 

That’s my chair

            I wobbled and nearly fell

off because

she’s right

it is hers

she’s staring at it

I’m only sitting on it

 

*

 

It isn’t possible to separate a ‘writing heritage’ from a ‘wage heritage’: between death and rent comes work. COMIC TIMING asks: what does it feel like to work? Really, what does it feel like? To have to, to want to, to be made to, to realise only afterwards that what you were doing has been work all along. Pester’s text understands poetry itself to be a labour structure, a process. In ‘Are you writing about love?’ the question is immediately answered: ‘No farming practices / O the industry around love’. This industry refers to animal breeding and milking – alienated reproductive labour, or sex alienated from anthropomorphic projections of love – and to poetry itself, perhaps the most historically enduring industry around love save sex work. In Alicia Carroll’s ‘Human Milk in the Modern World’, an essay published in 2002 that reads nineteenth-century fiction by positioning changing breastfeeding practices alongside innovations in dairy farming, she notes that dairies, often romanticised as a kind of rural idyll, have in fact always been ‘gendered workspaces that are specific to separate historical moments and hence, separate ideologies and technologies of labour’. Or, to put it the poem’s way:

 

Love has always moved with farming

Yes love has always moved forward with farming

Every sexuality has a knowledge and a technology and every new way

to move beasts from one crate to another produces a metaphor

distinct to a loving gesture rooted in historical economic

packed-full machines –

methods for milking and experimental love poems or cheese

 

The question of what it means for poetry to be understood as a labour practice is central not only to Pester’s experimental love poems but to the lineage of poets she is connected to: COMIC TIMINGS ‘writing heritage’. In the acknowledgements, she quotes from William Blake’s THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL (1790): ‘the bird a nest, the spider a web’, something that also conjures the spiderweb icon used by the Greenham Common women’s peace camp to symbolise collective action.

 

Pester’s work is generally considered to be part of the lineage of linguistically innovative women poets writing in Britain and Ireland since the 1970s: by way of making shorthand of a long history, we can look to her inclusion in the 2015 Reality Street anthology OUT OF EVERYWHERE 2 edited by Emily Critchley, a follow-up to OUT OF EVERYWHERE, edited by Maggie O’Sullivan in 1996. In David Kennedy and Christine Kennedy’s 2013 study WOMEN’S EXPERIMENTAL POETRY IN BRITAIN 1970-2010 this tradition is centred around ‘body, time and locale’, which ‘position the individual body in a particular spatio-temporal matrix’. Our positions (including, perhaps especially, gender) are constructed in relation to a specific moment, but time itself is also constructed. This is a formulation that draws on Julia Kristeva’s 1981 theorisation of ‘Women’s Time’ as an alternative to linear, world-historical time, which is also – as theorists like Dipesh Chakrabarty, Silvia Federici and Giordano Nanni have observed – colonial time. Women’s time, as Kristeva and many since have understood it, finds the body as the body is, not the body as it is constructed by capitalist and patriarchal structures.

 

For Pester, this spatio-temporal matrix is revealed in stance and gesture. In her 2019 essay about the poet Catherine Wagner (in POETRY AND WORK, edited by Ed Luker and Jo Lindsay Walton), Pester builds an interpretative methodology around posture, which she defines as ‘itself descriptive of a body’s bearing of mass in relation to time’. Posture, in other words, is a body holding itself together. With it, she writes, ‘Something (time plus gravity for instance) is being imposed on the body as it acts, making posture generative of meaning of the explicit and detailed continuum of material conditions.’ Posture makes a body’s history manifest. We might think of COMIC TIMING’S ‘Sex with Lodgers’, and the line: ‘I am trying to write poetry into my age, the specific time of my body / and the life it does’. We might also think again of ‘Eccentric Attire’ – ‘the attitude of my body is a boy / wearing a cravat’ – and especially its last half:

 

My body has an industry in that boy, it contrives

a life. The way the boy flinches and reacts

is a coordination of the way my body loves to will

itself a little destroyed.

 

An individual body’s history is impossible to separate from the collective history of bodies. The history of the experimental poetry of the 1970s is also a history of workplace disputes, some of which is documented in BOOOOOK: THE LIFE AND WORK OF BOB COBBING (edited by William Cobbing and Rosie Cooper and first published in 2015). In 1970, Cobbing convened a ‘Poets Conference’ of more than 80 writers to act as an unofficial union, organising readings and lobbying for Arts Council funding and better pay: ideally, ‘full-time poets’ would make at least £1000 a year (today almost £16,000). Cobbing was also active in The Poetry Society – a membership organisation to ‘promote the study, use, and enjoyment of poetry’ that was at the centre of the ‘poetry wars’ of the 1970s – and served as its treasurer until 1977, when there was a mass resignation in protest at the Arts Council’s perceived desire to intervene in the Society and influence the artistic direction of its publication, THE POETRY REVIEW. This dispute was not ostensibly about the difference between professionalism and radicalism but over the ways in which poetry counted as work. The perceived inaccessibility of the concrete and experimental work that was being published in THE POETRY REVIEW, however, was a bone of contention: Cobbing had established the small press Writers’ Forum in 1963, which published writers – O’Sullivan, Geraldine Monk, Paula Claire – loosely associated with the British Poetry Revival: generally speaking, poets influenced by modernism, writing experimentally.

 

To write into our current moment is to be in conversation with the 1970s in a myriad of (depressing) ways. One of the most interesting ones is the renewed relevance of conversations about the formal recognition of poetry as work and unionisation. In response to 2020’s ongoing economic and public health crises, Alex Marsh, Tom Crompton and Dom Hale established the Poet’s Hardship Fund and its accompanying publication, LUDD GANG, the first issue of which featured work from O’Sullivan and Monk, amongst others. Luddism was a radical nineteenth century organisation of textile workers who protested against the mechanisation of their labour by destroying machinery: this legacy of workplace militancy is interwoven with the beginnings of the trade union movement in Britain. The Fund, with its option of a monthly donation, fulfils something of the role of a makeshift trade union. Technically, the Society of Authors is the trade union for ‘professional writers’, lobbying on issues like contract terms, public lending rights, and copyright. It also administers prizes, including the Eric Gregory awards – although these endow a total of £250,000 to writers each year, the competitive framework seems to me to muddy the remit of a workers’ organisation. It also raises the question of what a professional poet is: barely anyone relies on poetry for their sole income. In contrast, the Hardship Fund states that ‘The money doesn’t have to be for a project or a book; you’re a poet if you write poems. That’s it.’ In setting itself apart from funding bodies, many of which require tacit approval of a work’s themes, a tangible ‘output’, or a laborious process of self-justification – the Arts Council Covid-19 emergency grant required you to list your spouse’s income – this fund positions poetry as work in and of itself, independent of the mechanisms of publishing but keenly alive to the material conditions of this un(der)paid labour.

 

*

 

What does work sound like? There are many poets currently writing in Britain and Ireland whose poems aren’t simply about work but perform it: texts structured by austerity, the housing crisis, the erosion of the welfare state, and the miserable stratification of class, often published by small presses or circulating in pamphlets sold at readings. Of these, Pester is in particularly strong conversation, it seems to me, with Rob Kiely, Nat Raha and Verity Spott. Kiely’s SIMMERING OF A DECLARATIVE VOID, a book of ferocious lyrics against landlords and manufacturing processes (The 87 Press, 2020), sets itself, as Lily Ní Dhomhnaill writes in THE STINGING FLY, ‘The impossible task of addressing its existence as an object in the world rather than just words that reflect the world, or talk about the world.’ In Raha’s fundamentally disruptive collage lyrics, the ‘coherence’ of language itself is troubled. This refusal, in texts that engage with the racialised, transphobic hierarchies of work in the UK, recognises ‘normal’ language as a tool of oppression and compliance. This function is particularly clear in relation to the identities and freedoms – including the freedom to speak – of those whose work, such as sex work, endangers them at the same time as it is denied the label of work at all: what she describes in her 2017 SOUTH ATLANTIC QUARTERLY essay ‘Transfeminine Brokenness, Radical Transfeminism’ as ‘the disqualification of the transfeminine’.

 

Spott’s CLICK AWAY CLOSE DOOR SAY (Contraband Books, 2017) is a chronicle of two years of employment in a specialist support unit for young adults with high-functioning autism and related diagnoses: in ‘The Politics of Delivery’, Pester describes it as a text that ‘mimics the stresses and breaks of a working day, in an institution designed to hold people in various ways, and in doing so demonstrates how voices are managed.’ Compiled every workday, it incorporates vast shifts of sense and rhythm, from the comprehensible address of meetings­ – ‘Because you’ve fully comprehended / the violence of management hierarchies’ – to the dislocated static sounds of the physical work place:

 

door broke on to sight of second door to ….. to me the se

second door is grim lips at frst on a 90° hoop of one to door

spin set of

asc dant door monitoring system. Wort door one is in airlock

sight present to door two            d r2 intensity SCAM door

 

What does it sound like to not be working? When voices get a break from management? In 2019, Pester published ‘Eclogues for Idle Workers (Distance No Object)’, a modified version of a text performed on BBC Radio 4. Utilising parts of the format of Virgil’s ECLOGUES, we move with colleagues Magatha and Terry from ‘Eclogue One: coffee break’ to ‘Eclogue Seven: sitting down near bins’; from mundane office talk – ‘T: Hoho you have a cereal bar / M: Yes it’s instead of youth’ –to uncanny interstices where the work stops and they feel their own time ebbing away, sacrificed to the workplace. By the end, by the sticky plastic bins, they fail to remember how to leave the office and each other’s company: ‘Your sleep’, Magatha says to Terry, ‘is the sleep I’ve missed’, and then, ‘We’ve burned up the last of the day / It is time to go’.

 

When trying to distinguish between working sounds and non-working sounds, working voices and non-working voices, we can follow ‘Eclogues’ and see the potential for the disruption of work – the banal demands of capital – in conversational talk: chat and gossip. In 2016, Pester published GO TO RECEPTION AND ASK FOR SARA IN RED FELT TIP (Book Works) a book of poems and prose composed during a residency at the Women’s Art Library in London. The title comes from a scrawl on a poster for a 1980s benefit disco; much of the book is archive material, including indexes and catalogues. Writing in ‘Jacket 2’, Pester described this practice as using gossip as a research method:

 

Gossip is a kind of folk art, activated through oral culture and queer, radical, and female communities. It exists through repetition, subversion, communication, and relation. We can tune into gossip as a radical approach to art history or we can do it as method, as a mode of composition.

 

In ‘Poster Index Poem’, which opens GO TO RECEPTION, the list of titles becomes a landscape of subjectivity – ‘Testimony / from the interior’ – as the text repeatedly crosses over between ‘public bodies / private states’. A linear, academic notion of history is disrupted repeatedly by feeling:

 

To meet her is to love her

heritage

her aching heart

 

In ‘Archive Fan Fiction’, an imaginary narrative that responds to the archives of Sarah Satchel, Jo Spence, Marlow Moss, Emma Barton and Beverly Skinner, we see the gossip drawn and imagined from these historical depositories enact the same collapsing of pronouns that occurs in ‘Villette’: ‘This is us in 1982 just before she/I left for Northampton and I/she stayed in Plymouth’. Gossip, here, weaves two stories together: Plymouth and Northampton, leaving and staying, but inextricably linked at the level of the self.

 

Gossip, of course, is not really a non-working sound; it subverts the processes of work, but it is in itself productive, a feminised – by which I mean unrecognised – mode of labour. In early modern England, ‘gossip’ was a term for companions who would stay with pregnant people through childbirth, before its medicalisation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries replaced these particular structures of care with lying-in hospitals and clinics. In ‘Hard for Me and So Many’, which begins, ‘It has been exhausting and expensive trying to decide. What my ideal body is’, domestic labour is explicitly present, placed in a maternal lineage, a ‘women’s history’ that depends upon sacrifice and is threatened by institutions and borders:

 

I do not expect you to transcribe the interview. Where I mention. How my health is damaged by years of domestic work and relative poverty. All the information I have left is for my daughter’s passport application.

 

*

 

What does reproduction sound like? In COMIC TIMING, the answer is that it sounds like work. The poem ‘The Work and its Record’ builds on the methodological scaffolding of GO TO RECEPTION: it was written from notes made by Pester in the archives of Glasgow Women’s Library. The poem quotes from a National Abortion Campaign protest song sheet, ‘one song sung to the tune of another’s older song’:

 

            Who’s got the right to life?

            Those that live it

            Who’s got the right to life?

            We that give it

 

‘Songs’ and ‘singing’ recur throughout the poem, examples of both the ‘work’ of activism and its ‘record’ and as voiced manifestations of labour: administrative tasks, photocopying, booking rooms, organising meetings. The National Abortion Campaign was founded in 1975 and defended the 1967 Abortion Act (which partially decriminalised the termination of a pregnancy in England, Scotland and Wales) against the many assaults on it that occurred throughout the following decades.  The struggle for liberation recorded by the poem is not just that which is explicitly related to reproductive justice – the Embryo Bill, Corrie’s Bill, the Infant Life Protection Bill – but workers’ struggles and antifascist and anticolonial action, too: ‘standing in the / picket line at Armagh Jail and refusing to strip and refusing to wash’; ‘supporting the miners’ strike’; ‘stopping the BNP campaigning / outside train stations’. In its specific mention of ‘Enoch Powell’s Unborn Child Protection Bill’, referring to his proposed drastic limitations to IVF research that functioned as a covert attack on abortion rights in 1985, almost 20 years after his violently racist ‘rivers of blood speech’, the poem makes explicit the link between the control of reproductive bodies and the politics of racist oppression. Towards the end of the poem, Pester reiterates the inseparability of these struggles, locating within them both the daily work of survival and the ‘right to life’ itself:

 

what survives? the work and the tradition of living in the worker

in the records of their songs

 

Song, here, is both the artefact and the animating force: not an abstract notion – the origin of poetry but no longer relevant to its content – but the persistence of history within the form itself.

 

Lindsay Turner, in her 2018 essay ‘Lullaby & Labor: Alice Notley and the Work of Poetry’, published in CONTEMPORARY WOMEN’S WRITING, argues for a reconsideration of song – specifically the lullaby form – to ‘place the production of poetry back in the context of work, specifically gendered domestic and reproductive work’. By returning lullaby and song more generally to its heritage of women’s worksongs, we can see that the theorisation of poetry generally relies upon the exclusion of both physical and emotional labour. In 2016, Pester released COMMON REST (TEST CENTRE), a vinyl album with an accompanying book of poems. The project emerged from her residency with Hubbub, an interdisciplinary team of researchers based at the Wellcome Collection in London, and features collaborations with Spott, Raha and Vahni Capildeo, among others. It centres around the form of the lullaby and its relation to work and rest:

 

While a lullaby sounds out the material labour of care, makes its flesh and breath felt, it also sounds out the radical obscuring of work. Therefore a lullaby might be a chorus for all bodies, affectively performing a different worksong, a kind of common rest.

 

In the essay ‘Songs of Rest’ from the same year, Pester defines lullaby as the ‘cry of reproductive work’, refusing the related assumptions that the singer of the lullaby is always the mother and this is somehow ‘natural’ or ‘inherent’ labour:

 

Who is the traditional singer of lullabies? The mother, the sister, the maidservant, the nanny, the wet nurse and colonized bodies of imperial systems; commoning women, those whose work is turned into capitalized care and that in turn supports work outside the home and global economies.

 

The lullaby aims to produce sleep, the opposite of labour, but not for the singer. The singer, most likely, will use the product of their song – time without the baby – to get on with other pressing domestic tasks: ‘The lullaby is dependent on the work of one body for the rest of another.’ This, too, is the work of activism described in ‘The Work and its Record’: you struggle so others’ burdens might be lightened. One song sung to the tune of another’s older song.

 

In the first act of COMIC TIMING, there is a run of five explicitly reproductive poems. In ‘Historical Bedsores’, as ‘women hold their babies up to the light and the women without / babies weep at the thought’, the gendered body is rendered grotesque and strange, as women ‘with no breasts and red gruesome hair are kin / prepare bowls of hot gum / in our bellies’ which are also full of ‘clowns and bugs’. The refusal to reproduce is related to articulation: ‘without babies we chirp into caves.’ In the next poem, ‘Doctor!’, the presence of two children, (‘These freaks you’re holding / A child and A child grating my arms’) is related in lines taken from another mouth: the poem is composed of material from George Eliot’s 1861 novel SILAS MARNER, a text that locates the salvation of the eponymous linen weaver in his adoption of a child, Eppie, whose ‘golden curls’ are frequently figured as replacing lost money. In ‘Aborted’, the poem that follows, the speaker, ‘Giving birth by a hedgerow’ calls forward to the lullabies to come in ‘The Work and its Record’:

 

It was verses we should’ve sung

bring back my

I doubled up

 

The linen implicitly present in ‘Doctor!’ is realised at the end of ‘Odd Kill’, two poems later, as the speaker explains their refusal: ‘It is not in my interest to be the means for ‘human life’ but it is interesting to be alive’, instead choosing to ‘revisit’ the innards of the self as a ‘killer’, who then finds ‘new means for life, although as a I say life what I mean / is linen’.

 

The final poem in this miniature sequence is the text that gives the collection its title. ‘Comic Timing’, which begins ‘I went to Ilford on my own / walked up a dual carriageway’, documents the experience of an early medical abortion, of being ‘mid-verb’: I / am not having / I am / abortive was the last thing I / thought.’ Language falters, and articulation becomes bodily. How do you name something curtailed, prevented? In timing and in feeling: ‘we have to feel / everything in our stomach / ache is tempo’. These feelings – cramps, pain – are recounted alongside other kinds of gendered work. The speaker goes through her to-do list, which includes cleaning an Airbnb – ‘I do it for money / I am a bad maid to industry’s heart muscle’ – and later goes home and bakes cheese straws for her flatmate’s guests, has a strange interaction with a close friend, tries to enjoy a party.

 

The experience of having an abortion in this poem scrapes the limit of language, its diction almost incomprehensible, but retains a hold on sense because it is pegged to a narrative: what you did before the procedure (went to Ilford, walked up the carriageway), what you did after (baked cheese straws, spoiled a party). The mundanity of the ‘story’ of the central event that is in some sense literally about life and death both functions as a political point – abortions happen every day, they are everyday, they must continue to be – and an enacts the comic/tragic timing of living:

 

I shouldn’t have expected it to happen all at once
but I was told to expect it to happen all at once
they held up the staff
red for someone
I feel like a comedy
that’s probably a lot of it there
it’s still going on

 

What happens to poetry when it acknowledges domestic, emotional and reproductive labour as work, but without the scaffold of traditional lyric form? What happens when we bring that acknowledgement into a direct relationship with the oppressive structures that govern life under capitalism? I think COMIC TIMING is what happens. In constructing a poetics of ‘banal survival’ in a collection named after a poem about going to Ilford to get an abortion, lyric becomes a record of invisible labour, of the undermined and ignored material conditions of living. That is to say, in Pester’s words, the ‘material collapses of time or narrative’: ‘Slipping on a banana peel, terminating a pregnancy, falling asleep at your desk, tenancy contracts’. These collapses! They’re so sad; so unbelievably funny.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a writer and academic based in Glasgow. Her first book, Mother State — a political history of motherhood — is forthcoming from Allen Lane. Her poetry pamphlet Daddy Poem was shortlisted for the 2019 Ivan Juritz Prize; her latest, In the Pleasure Dairy, was published by Sad Press in 2020. She teaches English Literature at Durham University, and is a resident commissioning editor at MAP magazine.

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