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Steve Spence

"When we were almost like men" by Martin Hayes, pub. Smokestack Books, 130 pages. £7.95

I first came across Martin Hayes’ work shortly after his first collection, Letting Loose the Hounds, was published in 2001. This isn’t poetry for the faint-hearted. Hayes’ subject, relentless and ongoing, is the pressure people are put under in work situations where everything is falling apart because of lack of investment and organisational conflicts which create an environment where everyone is watching their backs all of the time and where nobody comes to expect any change in their circumstances. You could see this as a critique of the entire system, expressed through the absurdity of day-to-day strife, where anxiety builds and builds and where people become monstrous in order to survive on low-pay, endless pressure and the knowledge that things are going to continue this way for ever. Or you could argue that this is just ‘the way things are’ and we should all just get on with it and make the best of a bad job, endlessly. Hayes, born in London in 1966, left school at fifteen and worked in a series of jobs, including courier, telephonist, controller, recruitment manager and accounts clerk. He has obviously run the gamut and seen things from different angles and has a lot experience of working in a variety of difficult situations which provide the material for these poems. His main employment though seems to have been as a courier in London and as ‘a controller’, setting up and organising the workload of couriers.

These poems are mainly short, quite often no more than a page long, direct and immediate and certainly not politically correct. There is humour, of the dark variety, and the poems exude a sort of paranoid anxiety which builds as you read them through and try and think yourself into the created scenarios. Anyone who has ever worked in a dysfunctional situation which is nevertheless ‘the norm’ will recognise at least some of the frustration based on unproductive bureaucracy and a sense of conflict which seems to be built into the system. Take this example:


     Phoenix Express require their controllers
     to fill out report forms every time they finish a shift
     report forms on which we are supposed to
     list out any problems we have encountered
     report forms on which we are supposed to
     ‘elucidate’ our opinions
     and highlight any customer complaints we may have come
     report forms on which we are supposed to
     ‘speak frankly’ about the working environment
     we find ourselves in
     but which we must keep our complaints
     at an ‘objective’ level
     and to not let ourselves get carried away
     ‘by trying to right the universe’
     report forms on which
     we are supposed to sign our names
     that no one will ever read
     and which one day will be shredded
     by people who will have to fill out report forms
     on the efficiency of their shredding machines

     someone somewhere at Phoenix Press
     must know why and what they are doing
     even if we don’t

Alan Dent of the Penniless Press has called Martin Hayes ‘the English Fred Voss’ and you can see where he’s coming from on this. Using the workplace as the main basis for poetry is a relatively rare thing, at least within British culture, though I have hopes that we may yet see a collection of ‘Supermarket Poems’ from Kenny Knight in Plymouth. Hayes’ poems often contain violence, touched on in an almost comic-book manner which is nevertheless chilling: ‘the management decided to give Horse notice / after it was reported to them / that he had broken Kilo Three-Eight’s hand in a vice / for calling him a cowboy’. He’s good at writing about the desperation of relying on payday to keep
afloat a dysfunctional family unit, a mix of despair and black humour which not infrequently veers into the realm of the obscene and the nihilistic. Hayes is a sharp writer though and keeps the pages turning as he describes ‘the human condition’ which you can’t help feeling he sees no answer to. There’s material here though that provides analysis and therefore the possibility of change which might just, depending on how optimistic you are, be possible. Take the following poem for example:


     the self-employed cycle couriers said
     that this was the most freedom that they’d ever had
     while holding down a full-time job
     as they didn’t have to bow, jump or lick the arse
     of some suited-up boss.

     the self-employed motorcycle couriers said
     that this was the most freedom that they’d ever had
     while holding down a full-time job
     as they didn’t have to bow, jump or lick the arse
     of some suited-up boss

     the self-employed van drivers said
     that this was the most freedom that they’d ever had
     while holding down a full-time job
     as they didn’t have to bow, jump or lick the arse
     of some suited-up boss

     and I think they all believed this
     as they raced through the streets at ridiculous speeds
     dodging trucks, busses, pedestrians,
     evading death by millimetres
     at least ten times a day,
     so that the parcels they were carrying
     for that same suited-up boss
     that they were glad not to work for
     arrived on time

This poem and others like it describe a common situation for a lot of workers in ‘the gig economy’ and how it’s so easy, ‘psychologically’ to buy into this reality while feeling that you still have some control. It’s not the most subtle or sophisticated poetry but it’s effective in its analysis and in its despairing black humour and to that extent Martin Hayes is a lot cleverer and perceptive than he’s often given credit for being. The cover artwork, by Ashkan Honarvar is an intriguing photo-montage. Smokestack Books look good these days as well as representing an important area of mainly politically-focussed poetry which doesn’t get published much elsewhere.



Copyright © Steve Spence, 2018