LABOR, Jill Magi’s book-length poetic excavation of our oppressive economic landscape, begins with an index. It begins with what is usually last, with what only a specialized few would be interested in. With LABOR, Magi, it seems, is interested in illuminating what only those who flip to the index, who are paying close attention, see—the persistent and unyielding subjugation of the working class (women and people of color, in particular) not only by wealthy, powerful people, but also by a system that subjugates this working class by proxy.
And, as with any index, a specific, predetermined structure presides, a structure of alphabetization and sub-alphabetization according to topics and their associations. “Work, / as cultural expression,” LABOR begins, “days as unit of, / distinction between, and hobby.” As this opening poem continues, we recognize the logically categorized and alphabetized arrangement of phrases, but we also come to understand it as a depiction of our oppressive economic landscape as well as how classification, how discourse itself is structurally problematic:
Sense of well-being and,
See also underemployment.
See also relief workers.
We know, since we are acquainted with indexes, that any sub-categorization would start at the beginning of the alphabet, but these lines depict how easily, it seems, “austerity” follows “unemployment,” how “depression” is next. Indeed, these lines depict how issues relating to labor (its stresses, its cruelties) are as engrained in society as the alphabet is in language itself. All the while, the targets of oppression and cruelty—the unemployed, women, people of color—seem to fall into line, into place in this system (in this poem), as designated by the controlling forces of discourse and wealth. The not-having-a-choice of these targets of oppression is depicted as predetermined as the alphabet, as the bricks in a city wall:
The woman who disobeyed was built into the city wall but before they completely bricked her in she asked that one arm one eye and one breast remain outside. The wall wept milk and everyone took her in.
This is the scene, the image that follows LABOR’s opening index. What sticks out from the wall becomes disembodied, is objectified, and, only after this, does “everyone [take] her in.” The woman in these lines—which were inspired by an Albanian folktale—becomes an archive. Her body is kept inside of the brick wall and is, thus, preserved, but not in a way that indicates the possible, future retrieval of its knowledge.
LABOR seems intent on inverting this. It seems intent on re-creating the archive in the image of the continued subjugation of the working class—to better represent the real struggles of those it depicts. There are characters who acquire names (Miranda, Sadie and J.), but first appear named only by what they do (an unfortunate aspect of our status-obsessed society) in and around academia: “the archaeologist with tenure,” “the self-appointed inspector,” and “the teacher who is also an artist.” There is an ironically titled textbook, Invisible America, that the teaching artist discusses with her class. And, there is an autobiographical document J. is writing (“the archaeologist with tenure”)—a document, titled “My Seneca Village,” that shares its name with “Seneca Village: A Teacher’s Guide to Using Primary Sources” and the real Seneca Village in New York City, in which “264 people lived ... in 1855. After the birth of the idea of Central Park, newspapers called it ‘Nigger Village.’” It is worth noting here that there is some correlation between Seneca Village and the preceding index—how the establishment, those in power, those making categories the indexes reflect, re-names Seneca Village, names it how they see it; meanwhile, Sadie, Miranda and J. are named according to how they are seen by others, by what they do, or did do, with and for those that employed them.
Perhaps most compelling is the reoccurring sequence titled “HANDBOOK” that LABOR provides for what an employee should do, for the re-creation of the archive, for the personalization of it so that knowledge of the present moment can be retrieved. Its instructions have an emphasis on self-reflexive inquiry into the practice of making an archive, of permission, of what gets to be included (concerning whom), and what gets left out:
Place your own documents in the labor archive:
Query the head librarian as to whether they will accept your box of documents. Content: a copy of the gag order and final settlement, numerous letters of part-time appointments, photographs of the ceremony marking the end of your art ...
This particular “HANDBOOK” includes an alternate action following this passage, in which one might “take the box of documents to the park and walk into the woods. Find a good spot, preferably under a tree. Take out your trowel and dig a hole.” It’s a telling moment, a reaction to the query described above. It suggests that the best spot for the archive, no matter the answer to such a query, is underground, as a kind of time-capsule, outdated and unrepresentative of what it is supposed to represent.
Elsewhere, Magi re-creates the archive in the image of her own experience, concerning a very disconcerting vision of what contemporary labor in academia looks like:
Create your own offer of tenure:
An offer of tenure may be written, typed up, and printed out on institutional letterhead, folded, addressed to you, stamped, mailed, ripped open, and accepted.
Unfold this letter and soak in tea for an historical look. You are ahead of your time.
Place this letter in a file folder labeled ‘My Employment.’
This passage from a “HANDBOOK” poem is corrective, cathartic and incriminating. It sets the archive, which is what LABOR becomes, on fire with the kind of venom regarding real people’s lives that real academia deserves.
And, then, this fire, “with the snap of branches comes a flash of white light,” becomes actual on LABOR’s final page: “The archive is on fire and we are faceless ... we finally sit down shake loose our names.” These final lines represent what LABOR masterfully accomplishes—the incineration of labor archives, of what labor archives—and those guarding them, those sitting behind them, behind their glass cases and not in the world (where real labor cripples)—do to those they are supposed to chronicle and document so that the crimes of labor do not persist, so that history does not repeat itself.
Remember “the woman who disobeyed,” whose “one arm one eye and one breast” stick out from the city wall? LABOR with its ouroboros-and/or-hall-of-mirrors-like narratives and documents, its self-reflexive employee handbook and opening index is a kind of hammer that Jill Magi puts in her one hand. Maybe this “woman who disobeyed” is Jill Magi. Maybe she’s all women, all people of color, all those who are broken by an economic system that favors only those pulling its strings. In any of these scenarios, LABOR is the hammer that the woman can now use to bludgeon her way out, crumbling the city wall into pieces so that she may emerge.
Christopher Kondrich is the author of Contrapuntal (Parlor Press, 2013), a New Measure Poetry Prize finalist. He is the winner of The Iowa Review Award for Poetry (selected by Srikanth Reddy), and The Paris-American Reading Series Prize. His poetry appears or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Gulf Coast, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, Web Conjunctions and elsewhere. He edits Tupelo Quarterly.