Harry Reid’s poetry of the office
Reviewed: Harry Reid, Leave Me Alone, Cordite
One of the ironies of Harry Reid’s poetry collection Leave Me Alone—in essence an order, a knee-jerk response, the default state of interacting with co-workers as they try to send you memes from The Office over the group WhatsApp—is the sense of a conversation overheard, trying to resist becoming a monologue. In this, Leave Me Alone might as well have been written by any poet trying to immortalise a specific guy, a specific summer’s day, a specific era, and the language that subsequently interferes. What is the anonymous, deifying ‘You’ of a sonnet but the precursor to an email chain’s placeholding, or the ‘you’ in Reid’s line, from the section ‘Email Signatures’: ‘I’m happy / to do it & when you / get back I have / an SOP im just dying / to show you?’
There’s no-one specific on the other side of the call, the Work-Place says. So long as there’s a Work-Place there’s an ‘I’ and a ‘you’, a division of labour. Here, the coin of lyric poetry—the play of highly detailed yet generic forms of life—and the verbiage of late-capitalist employment are on the same page, at least. In the book’s introduction, Reid describes the poems as ‘about “work” and “labour”’, yet if there’s something that gives Leave Me Alone its power beyond that general description, it’s this interrogation of work—its givens, internalisation of precarity, self-commodification and pure waste—as life-producing, as a kind of bad poetry. The collection plays with an output of affects and specific gestures, tics and in-jokes, how the speaker of the poems processes—and is processed by—the Gig, the way its language and the language of the speaker entangle, speaking in each other’s voice. As work becomes indistinguishable from life, how does language mutate in reaction? What kind of dialects spring up?
For Reid, voice and persona are key: what is said about work is secondary to how it is said; how the effects/accoutrements of the workplace are handled. The speaker of Reid’s poems is somewhat recognisable: ironic, deflationary, colloquial in a late millennial way. A reference pool of kick-flips being awesome, boomers sounding off, ‘all the jobs in our town / line up in a pretty row’, Garfield memes, Metaverse, an instinct for the daily horrors of capital that you have to live through. A Nine News anchor might call them a larrikin, a battler, if this tone-of-voice/persona wasn’t already a defence mechanism against ‘Reagan or Howard or bad multis’, a neoliberal debasement of currency.
The voice in Leave Me Alone most resembles the reflexive irony of the contemporary Australian lyric, the element of monologue. Yet this is exactly what the poems are straining to avoid. At worst, this voice could be construed as solipsism, the feeling that your Sydney or Melbourne literary persona gives you access to the whole wide world, yeah nah, giving home-brand Noo Yawk, Frank O’Hara in khakis and banana boat. However, in the spirit of labour, we could talk about this resemblance in terms of the productive contradictions seen in the poems: a lyric ‘I’ that marks the speaker’s split between pop-culture references and corporate nothing-speak, such as in the poem ‘Work Song’: ‘I am “working” on myself but lazily / tempting to think of my missus as not work.’
In Giorgio Agamben’s words, this is capital as spectacle—‘a devastating experience of language that all over the planet unhinges and empties traditions and beliefs, ideologies and religions, identities and communities’. In Reid’s words it’s a ‘company credit / card // I accidentally / maxed out’. At the same time, this lyric ‘I’, in how it bears witness to this devastation, presumes the same stability of the lyric form that has always existed. But Reid’s poems work—as much as poems can—to subvert this, in their run-on lines, breaking enjambment and punctuation, deployment of corporate cliché and personal budgeting as defamiliarising technique (‘godspeed monthly budget. add dues to outgoing, feel vindicated until checking your account in the bottle-o’). If the contemporary lyric ‘I’ is by default a white-collar drone with a relatively stable salary and its attendant PMC bona fides, Reid’s speaker is solidly part-time, making their own hours, deep in the shit.
This inextricability from the shit goes further, to the depiction of work itself. Fortunately the speaker isn’t above or apart from the sprawl of the late-capitalist workplace, in a way that many critics of the ‘late capitalist condition’ can slip into, keeping a poetic subject absent, vaguely implicated, but intact all the same, a reified product among products. Instead, the speaker in Leave Me Alone is a transistor, receiving and outputting electricity, crossing wires in places, scrambling codes and terms of address. The contemporary lyric ‘I’ maintains a fixed relationship between a disaffected speaker and the poem’s material, it reifies a particular, privileged depiction of work: unstable and ever more precarious, but fundamentally operating within set boundaries.
It’s a depiction of late-capitalist work and alienation that hasn’t changed since Fight Club or American Psycho, with the same self-oriented myopia. Reid—whatever distancing they put between their poetic voice and that kind of yuppie trash—operates in a similar ballpark at least, both by virtue of the continuing entwining of work and life since the 1990s, and the shared positions of that voice: narrational, bullshitting, white, in its field of reference and particular kind of ironic distance; male, if not essentially, but transversally, in the way the speaker detaches itself from straight white larrikin, Aussie masculinity and its work, implying familiarity and careful observation.
This is most evident in the halfway section titled ‘TGIF’, a series of postcards written to a friend, a deliberate attempt to place a ‘You’ on the other end of the line. Here, the voice and defamiliarising language remain consistent, but in the gaps and shorthand the ‘postcards’ leave, there’s a guarded intimacy, a sense of shared commiseration that the poems’ speaker might dismiss as naive and oversentimental as it engages with something that work can’t appropriate. In any case—and by design—‘TGIF’ remains something we can only read into, between the lines, investing ourselves in possibilities outside work, or at least those who still cannot yet be coopted. It’s a specific kind of work.
Reid describes their poems as being for ‘receptionists, personal assistants, facilities co-ordinators, venue managers, customer service officers’, while writing in the poems that the speaker can ‘name half a dozen drivers working / harder than you right now / I wonder how that happened / continues to happen / it’s not for me to know’. Together these invoke the spectre of the accelerated gig economy—comprising unprotected part-time drivers, home-delivery couriers and medicine transporters—that forms the horizon of Leave Me Alone and work in general.
If Leave Me Alone threads this needle—addressing itself to the holders of what David Graeber identified, from the outside, as ‘Bullshit Jobs’, while navigating the limits that this particular kind of work puts on depicting work in a less privileged sense—it’s from the poems’ sense of how work, in the twenty-first century, continues to deterritorialise and multiply forms of life, office drones and malfunctioning normies, not only born from the increasing erasure of the boundaries between work and life, but for whom specifically working on that erasure, in their own time, becomes a part of life. In the office, with its language of databases, spreadsheets and demobilised work, Reid pieces together the viral Petri dish of late capitalism, its particular formation of life, in which the voice of his poems—in their sense of power and limit—is tied up. Whether that’s a bonding agent or a dissolving solution is up in the air. •
Josie/Jocelyn Suzanne is a transfemme writer/editor living in Naarm.