JON CURLEY Reviews
Labor by Jill Magi
(Nightboat Books, Brooklyn and Callicoon, N.Y., 2014)
Some very late-breaking news: dateline July 2, 2016…appended almost as a cast off, a perfunctory postscript to the Business section of The New York Times, the obituary of rightfully eminent and willfully, wonderfully opaque English poet Geoffrey Hill. While his work in his field is duly noted by the obituarist, the placement of this announcement at the back of financial market matters (matters of mayhem, greed, self-regarding consumption) reaffirms that which requires no repetition—that creative labors should be kept subordinate to more utilitarian money-making ones. But what is the nature of labor, the real grunt work, physically and mentally, in the contaminated, compromised fields of neoliberalism and its austere (read: vicious, immoral) rend(er)ing of the world? Jill Magi’s compactly sized volume delves in for a dense, complicated look.
One could get into a sustained side commentary regarding the varieties of political poetry, in terms of tenor, intention, and design, and inclusion of Magi in the conversation would be key. Labor is a critique but not a polemic, nesting a narrative about academics and artists among sections labeled ‘HANDBOOK’ (not titled; this poem-cum-narrative is a manual of sorts, informing one how work works), offering methods through which to test the various mandates and methods of labor, and vignettes, snippets, and fragments referring to a litany of historical episodes and artistic representations related to labor history.
Magi culled many of her references from the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University’s Bobst Library. As a graduate student, I spent considerable time in this (public) archive and would never have considered a poetic sequence or book making use of its materials in such a surprising and surprisingly oblique way. Unlike her contemporaries Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr—to name just two crucial overtly politicized voices of today’s American poetry scene—whose lines ring with propulsive, (pro)revolutionary sentiments—Magi generates vast blocks of reportage, seemingly objective descriptions of the foils of toil, and specimen collection about industry, metaphorically and materially considered, without seeming to communicate judgement. Rather, she just releases evidence of what varieties of power games and unjust conditions are played out and how they affect human relationships or, more correctly, ‘interactions’ (as work seems to reduce human connection into coercive and mechanistic behavior). This forces the reader to make her own assessment about the predatory, too pervasive nature of most labors undertaken or underwritten for profit in a perennially corrupt but always well-oiled and well-mannered system. Given the poem whose politics are worn on sleeve, raised as fist, thrown like a grenade, or embedded, like Magi’s, in cryptic, suggestive lines without resolution, I have no preference and am willing to embrace all. However, the elliptical and neutral frames she forges for this volume strikes a chord or strikes a discord that is powerful, an astute fashioner of signs and structures through which to decipher the prevailing hegemonic (rhymes with ‘demonic’) economic structure of mind and practice. The poems in Labor resist, almost defy paraphrase or quotation, because doing either would wreck some of the developmental and contextual momentum of this intriguing and innovative volume. However, since Magi refuses a typical scheme for her expressions and expostulations, I will too and risk a quote and adduce a romantic, revolutionary spirit aloft in Magi and her work:
With the snap of branches comes a flash of white light—
What is the opposite of the labor of struggle?
Glimmering forested corridors.
In describing the corridors of the work space, Jill Magi also allows us to contemplate the vistas of her opposed vision, one which forsakes labor, at least temporarily, for a vacation, real and/or imagined.
Jon Curley's most recent book of poems is Hybrid Moments (2015). With Burt Kimmelman, he co-edited The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller: A Nomad Memory (2015). He teaches in Newark and lives in New York.