1 February 20233 February 2023 Reviews / Poetry This is where the rat bastard poem comes in Dan Hogan It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs There’s a poem in Harry Reid’s Leave Me Alone (Cordite Books, 2022) that goes ‘invisible hand feeling pretty / visible today / what’s my labour worth / when / I can’t hold it?’ and this is because the architecture of bullshit jobs is the playground of rats. market poem is a concrete poem that takes the visual form of an economic line graph rising and falling before plunging abyssward, carrying the answer to the question about the worth of one’s labour: ((((((((((((((((((((((((((((((nothing)))))))))))))))))))))))))))))) Rats will be found wherever nonsense presented as sense becomes the authority. Such is the cornerstone of anything organised along lines of capital: bureaucracies, workplace hierarchies, real estate, aspiration culture, institutions, ruling class artifice, governments, etcetera. Wherever there is capital there are rats—hoarding creatures, capital’s henchmen. Writing this essay about Leave Me Alone, I was immediately reminded of the ‘ratbag poem’ as editorialised by Duncan Hose for Cordite back in 2013 (and which I only became aware of from Alice Allan’s excellent interview with Harry on her podcast Poetry Says): Ratbag poems are immediately recognisable to the gatekeepers of good taste and accomplished craft; they are trashy, rude, slangy, ornery, tongue in cheek, drunken, stupid, libellous, scatological, infidel, counterfeit, profligate, Little Lord Fauntleroy, etc. How, then, to write the ratbag review? Works such as Reid’s stand out in a publishing landscape that is so Nielsen BookScan-pilled it is rare to find a book so thoroughly unserious and charmingly eviscerating in its approach to bagging the bullshit that comprises labouring under capitalism. Leave Me Alone is a gift but, unlike so many of the publications run off the McPherson’s Printing Group conveyor belt by major publishers, it is not giftware in the shape of a book. ok ok — if the poem has a job it’s to find a way to write on the clock, ideally my job is in service to the poem instead, it’s often in service to a bastard — this is where the rat bastard poem comes in starts thinking ‘there’s gotta be some way to get around this paywall’— poem’s dilemma: who’s gonna pay me fifty bucks? poem becomes a website, becomes a direct debit in this way the poem pays for itself then, alright — how to wrap up the bastardly poem; a few kids gone bad, throwing eggs out of a Beemer convertible a few kids getting into the bag, a few rats getting out, staring down the work versus actually doing it, the rat bastard poem gnawing at the walls says who’d want a desk job anyway, but knows a poem unaware of a pay cheque is no use at all To be a ratbag is to bag rats. You are only a ratbag for as long as you are in the business of bagging rats, of course, just like you’re not a race car driver if you don’t race cars. The rodential contents of a ratbag’s trappings can be sorted through with poetry, as Harry does. Enter, then, Reid’s ‘rat bastard poem’: the ensnarement of rodential bastardry (fight bastardry with bastardry) in which ‘the opposite of legislation is smoko.’ You have to get close to a rat if you want to bag its bastardry in a poem, which is good news because most of us need not search one out on account of already being cornered by multiple rats. In L’état d’ébauche, Noël Arnaud writes: ‘Je suis l’espace où je suis,’ or ‘I am the space where I am.’ On this, Gaston Bachelard remarks: ‘This is a great line. But nowhere can it be better appreciated than in a corner.’ In The Poetics of Space, he goes on: Consciousness of being at peace in one’s corner produces a sense of immobility, and this, in turn, radiates immobility. An imaginary room rises up around our bodies, which think that they are well hidden when we take refuge in a corner. Leave Me Alone’s poetic sensibility is sublime; poems do not appear so much as they appear caused. Reid is not a writer attempting to poetry themselves out of a corner; what they are doing is refusal: refusing to radiate immobility from their corner. Leave Me Alone is full of poems that set out to bag the corners (ie rats) that keep workers in their place. This ‘negative appreciation’ of the corner is never the more potent in work and work work: there’s enough growth here to set you up for life it’s a dynamic industry you could really move up maybe move a little further inland we all really love you here mate and you’re a real asset to the team but I’m afraid we’re gonna have to delay that conversation but we want you here just gotta put the work in just a few extra hours here and there work paid for a standing desk turn standing into work turn your back into an office Reid removes from hiding the imaginary rooms capital has enclosed around our bodies (and minds) in the form of workplace bleed, leaving us wondering how it is we came to participate in our own exploitation. The poems talk back from a time after myriad workplace bullshits have already occurred. Here, when Reid bags bullshit corporate jargon, they locate the microcosm of maddening absurdity that bullshit jobs represent. Reid’s seizure of corporate argot ventriloquises—bastardises—the spiritual atrophy caused by a job wherein the central function is an endless carousel of low-to-no-value tasks. This cornering effect, which seeks submission or ‘immobility’ from the worker without an act of submission is what David Graeber, whose book Bullshit Jobs is a critical takedown of the era-defining proliferation of pointless work, might call a ‘spiritual violence’ linked to the ‘moral and psychological effects of being trapped inside a bullshit job.’ Like any good act of ventriloquy, the dummy must be funny. Humour abounds in Leave Me Alone. However, to solely term Reid’s poetic achievements as bricolage or collage or ventriloquy would be trite because what Reid is doing is so much more premeditated than that, and so much more fun and funny. Reid’s ratbaggery is evidence that humour is a dish best served strangely and relatably. Again, in a publishing landscape that is so choked by the phlegm of its own obsession with didactic tales of bourgeois existentialism that it is losing oxygen to its brain, Leave Me Alone dares to be funny and weird and Cordite dares to publish it. As Duncan Hose has already pointed out, there exists much anxiety around humour in poetry. This, of course, is a bourgeois anxiety, one which can only be funny to me, and one which supplies ample reason as to why great works making use of humour are an enjoyable clapback against the humourlessness of institutional gentry who stand at the gates in cold sweats because somebody somewhere used a poem as a vehicle for making readers laugh. Boss-speak synechodism in Leave Me Alone raises humour by bagging the uncanny valley where corporate jargon attempts to look human, to appear normal and sensible, but achieves a grotesque mimicry of aliveness at best. In doing so, Reid embarrasses capital’s henchmen, the relatable locus of which has solidarity at its heart. Humour in poetry has an unmasking effect when it comes to revealing rather than disclosing bullshit. and over time you really start to see the impact we’re having we’re becoming a leader in the sector and it’s all because of the work you’ve put in and that’s great but I just can’t approve that leave and I’m sorry mate but we’re so close to going public just another few months Corporate jargon is a foul lexicon. It is an island where language has been stranded; not dead but left for dead, castaway, left with no option but to cannibalise itself. Forged in the interests of HR or PR and broadcast by capital’s henchman, it is a linguistic ecosystem nourished by hierarchy and housed by a deliberate disingenuity. Counterfeit decorum is the transmission device of corporate argot. Reid possesses a sharp eye for rendering, or, rather, embodying the existential fallout of this foul lexicon. Through a process of literary bastardisation and a fair dollop of tongue-in-cheek humour, the poems populating Leave Me Alone succeed not because they are the mere presentation of bullshit, but the embodiment of a certain despair that arises from the absurdly unnerving experience of being on the receiving end of a daily bombardment of counterfeit niceties sent from the corporate argot. Leave Me Alone led me to think analogously about being a bullshit receptacle, causing me to write things in my Notes app about how dispatches from the corporate argot perform essentially the same function as sticking a candle in a urinal cake and calling it a birthday party. Don’t forget to make a wish when you blow out your candle; no, that isn’t the tart stench of piss in the air, it’s a birthday cake, it’s a team building exercise, it’s wellbeing week because we care. Corporate argot is a language of delusion, as Reid makes clear. What is so interesting about the poetry of Leave Me Alone is how the writing also pours light on the tragedy of language inherent to corporate jargon. It is a language that lacks the courage of its own convictions, hubris writ large by a kind of sad clown that goes on clowning despite knowing full well that it is the clowning causing problems. I do enjoy the way in which the term ‘jargon’ is used two-fold: 1. To describe a technical or specialised argot, a vernacular that is morally uninvolved and conceptually neutral, but in a different breath, 2. As an insult to the terms of a specific language. ‘Corporate jargon’ has a bad reputation, as it should, and serves as a good example of how the term ‘jargon’ is also used in the pejorative sense, popularly in the current day. However, once upon a time, as Alice Becker-Ho points out in The Essence of Jargon, it was the ‘secret language of beggars’ and thieves, while ‘argot’ referred to a ‘brotherhood of beggars’. Way back when, the term was initially reserved for what Becker-Ho calls the ‘dangerous classes’, specifically groups such as the Romani, Nawken, Mincéirí, and others whose genealogy of cultural and traditional nomadism is rooted in being both perpetual refugee and fugitive. It is curious, then, that such derogatory terms should evolve ironically in a circle, or spiral, more correctly, to mean in the modern pejorative usage, a specialised taxonomy that may be indecipherable to those outside the dominant group. I feel a sense of schadenfreude bearing witness to the ouroboric nature of capitalists assigning themselves the very same terms of reference they historically used to degrade the ‘other’. We simply love to see a corporatist show their whole ass in this way, a linguistic self-own ripe for poem-ing against the capitalo-existential ensnarement of work and work work. One of my favourite (and one of the funniest) lines from Leave Me Alone is from ‘book of hours’: two factor authentication is a misnomer / there are three factors and the third is yourself / your desire to log in / Humour in poetry is both failure and betrayal: and it is these two walls that become a corner. If the poem fails to match the tastes of poetry bosses, it is also betraying a narrow bourgeois conception of the possibilities of poetry, which is to say a funny poem is a failure that does something right. Where class struggle lacks, the bourgeois poem takes shape. Poems like these do not set out to betray ruling class poetics, but they do. a sunny day has economic implications Reid has constructed a poetic argot that is a place made out of other places, wreckages, the detritus of work-dread. In so doing, they masterfully mine the textural and metaphysical scrapheap that is work and being a worker and masterfully weave and fuse these scourings into glowing metals. Poems like tough luck and restore previous tabs aesthetically call to mind the charm and implied story of a car with different coloured panels. The poems read like a repair job, which, like any good poetry about work, they probably are, in an incorporeal sense. From restore previous tabs: would you rather a day off or a loyalty rewards card? used to be you had a cubicle of your own, used to be you could shake hands with almost anybody — today I’m back to scarecrow duty, failing upwards. could this have been an email? am I maximising my solidarity here? it’s wise to keep a few tricky secrets between you and the boss, it shows you’re one to be trusted, living punk rock on an Arts budget. Bullshit jobs require bullshit bosses who work very hard to elicit submission without an act of submission from their vastly underpaid and overworked workforce. Bullshit jobs and bullshit bosses will always demand submission, which is why unions exist. It is also why the comrade exists. There is a specific kind of understated comradely joy that runs the length of Leave Me Alone, and it just about could bring a tear to my eye, if I’m honest. I’m a sucker for displays of solidarity. Harry’s book is divided into five sections: EMAIL SIGNATURES, WORKING HARD VS. HARDLY WORKING, TGIF, YOU’VE GOT TO FIND THE BOSS IN YOURSELF, and TO KILL THE BOSS IN YOURSELF. It is in TGIF: a series of postcards written to Gareth Morgan while at work, 2019-2021 that the joy of comradeship is brought to the front. TGIF is a triumphant amalgam of the poet’s sensibilities (it’s also where you’ll find the previously mentioned market poem): the personal and personally absurd is stitched into offcuts of anti-union bullshit boss jargon and email-speak. Harry writes poems as postcards to their mate about ‘every way to kill five minutes’, but they could be to any worker with comradely joy cc’d in. now in the thick of a kitchenette standoff – ‘it’s not that we’re opposed to the union ………… we just can’t believe you didn’t tell us first!!’ Bullshit bosses, and poetry bosses alike, hate to see a poem thriving comradely. In Comrade, Jodi Dean pinpoints how joy arises from comradeship’s ability to move workers toward ‘new feelings’ that leave them no longer ‘compelled to submit’. Comradely poems thunder against the radiation of immobility emitted by capital. It is writing that seeks to uncorner us. The genesis of comradely joy as described by Dean is also Reid’s gift to readers: Comrades let one forget the status that the world gives them—birth, family, name, class. In the absence of these relations, comrades develop a reflex for solidarity that exceeds personal happiness. Now, how to wrap up this review in a way that is both bastardly and comradely? I’ll give the penultimate word to the poet: a good worker is like a tree / inherently removable Don’t forget it. See you on Monday. Dan Hogan Dan Hogan is a non-binary writer and public-school teacher from San Remo (Awabakal Country). Dan’s poetry and prose have been recognised by the Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize, Val Vallis Award, XYZ Prize, Woollahra Digital Literary Award, and the Wheeler Centre Next Chapter Fellowship. In their spare time, Dan runs small DIY publisher Subbed In (www.subbed.in). More of their work can be found at www.2dan2hogan.com More by Dan Hogan Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. Related articles & Essays First published in Overland Issue 228 3 March 20233 March 2023 Poetry Poetry | 2 rat poems by joanne burns joanne burns the courtyard rat squatting on an empire of pizza boxes rainsoaked piles of stewing cardboard flattened packaging from long covid's eager merchandise anything to transcend an unimagined plague rat traps line the walls like doctors' obsolete portmanteaux from a much earlier decade First published in Overland Issue 228 27 February 2023 Reviews Freeing the arts from the markets: a reading of Chokepoint Capitalism Lizzie O'Shea On one read, chokepoint capitalism is really just plain old capitalism. The regulatory barriers (or moats) that companies erect to protect their monopolistic/monopsonistic power—including regulatory capture, neutering of competitors, complex contractual terms with suppliers, and straight up non-compliance with their legal obligations—are how capital works to protect and reproduce itself.