The Shop-Floor Gospel by Jane Commane

The Big Clear Up Begins After Glastonbury 2009At the end of the Reading Festival when all of the punters have gone home, the site is a wreckage; a teenage detritus of (un)broken tents, sick-strewn sleeping bags, cans, cardboard, and many other unmentionables. What is left is gathered up by volunteers, some of it is donated to charities (one year, tents were given to refugees in Calais), the rest recycled and landfilled. I think of this as a metaphor for how capitalism leaves places when it’s done. A factory or a pit closes and all that is left is a rusting construction and a community having to rebuild itself from nothing. For it is not only the workers, but all those who relied on their income; suppliers, local shops, local clubs and pubs.

Hope is the wrong kind of four letter word in these circumstances (I won’t list the right kind). Of course, with the demise of the Unions, negotiations to mitigate against such withdrawal, tends to be a one-sided affair, with the government having to foot the bill in welfare provision, or lack thereof. During the late 90s, I worked in the area of what is known as Corporate Social Responsibility (a somewhat oxymoronic term looking back now). ‘Ethical’ companies such as The Body Shop led the way in making businesses more accountable for their social and environmental impacts (it was termed the triple bottom line). Some good work was done in this area, and many companies paid more than a little lip service to such responsibilities. However, when times became tight, whether financially in terms of profits, or politically in terms of government influence, it was always the financial bottom line that over-rode its helpless bedfellows.

Jane Commane Assembly Lines cover imageJane Commane’s poem The Shop-floor Gospel, from her debut collection Assembly Lines, goes inside the uncertainty felt by workers both back in the day (that day being the 1980s I’m presuming) to the present; where either redundancies are in the air of shop floor gossip, or potential closure. ‘Fortune-teller, free agent,/ laughter in grubby canteens;/ Mark my words./ We’re a living museum!/ There’s no future’. This type of thing is happening across many developed countries. The feeling of being left when industries go under, is one the reasons people gave for voting Trump, or Brexit; when there was ‘only the holding out against/ believing in some kind of new/ that pacified the absences/ with retail parks.’ The extent of a ©PLP-24854-webt-044company’s responsibility goes well beyond its shareholders, its directors, even its employers. They should have responsibility for clearing up the mess they left behind, because just like the volunteers at the end of the Reading Festival, people aren’t paid to pick up their own pieces.

Jane Commane was born in Coventry and lives and works in Warwickshire. Her first full-length collection, Assembly Lines, was published by Bloodaxe in February 2018. She is editor at Nine Arches Press, co-editor of Under the Radar magazine, co-organiser of the Leicester Shindig poetry series, and is co-author (with Jo Bell) of How to Be a Poet, a creative writing handbook. In 2017 she was awarded a Jerwood Compton Poetry Fellowship.

 

The Shop-floor Gospel

Angry –
he who trudges the grey
dog-eared estate avenues,
a rasp of
I bloody told you so
ready on their lips.

Fortune-teller, free agent,
laughter in grubby canteens;
Mark my words.
We’re a living museum!
There’s no future.
We’re sold, sold out –

Decades blowing a coarse wind
through the resistance,
where no borders were left
to cross, no other line to join,
only the holding out against
believing in some kind of new
that pacified the absences
with retail parks.

You are
the lone no
on the shop-floor –
the habitual reader
of all the wrong news,
the public library ghost,
the vote cast for some
Old School
that’s long since closed.

A vanished oddment
a piss in the wind
the autumn leaves
laughing
at a glib historian’s
reworking
of the lady’s
not for turning.
I bloody told you so.

 

peace by martin hayes

This week the BBC did an experiment. They got five young British people to work on a farm for a day picking cabbages – although not mentioned, the wrappers they were putting the cabbages in, were heading for Tesco, ironically in a bag of a non-existent farm; (as I’ve mentioned before on the site, Tesco started packaging meat and veg in bags that said Woodside Farm and the likes, which may exist somewhere but in this case are an invention to make us feel their produce is more local).

MigrantWorkREX_468x281Anyhow, these workers were doing a job previously undertaken by workers from other EU countries. You can guess what happens; they find the work really hard and although do the job required of them, say they wouldn’t do it for a living. The farmer says that he is struggling now to find workers; Polish and Lithuanian workers have gone home because of the exchange rate, and the Bulgarian and Romanian workers who remain, are too few to take up the slack. And all this, when the majority of farmers voted to leave.

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Tropical Garden by Ian C Smith

It was Larkin who famously said in his poem Annus Mirabilis: “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ (which was rather late for me) -/ Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.” Teenagers for the first time were heard and given a glimpse of freedom, which as teenagers are wont to do, grabbed it by whatever they felt in reach, another person’s body, music, protest, and drugs of course. When I think about the first portrayals of the working class in the early 1960s in books and films, they are often rites of passage, where there is a clash of ages, with authority, and opportunity presents itself to our young confused adult protagonists.

billy liarBilly Liar does his eponymous best to escape the drudgery of northern working class life by playing on the fields of his mind as well as women he is in sentient contact with. Bumping up against his parents, grandparent, and boss, the wonderfully named Mr Shadrack. And at the end of the film, we so want him to leave with Julie Christie and go to London, but at the same time know that would undermine the film’s premise. Similar stories are told in such films as Taste of Honey, where Rita Tushingham fights with her drink-happy mother, gets pregnant by a black man, and is looked after by a gay man, which given the fact this was first written in 1959 by an eighteen year old Shelagh Delaney, four years before sexual intercourse was said to have begun, is remarkable. There is a wonderful line in the film from Murray Melvin, her ‘gay saviour’, when saying: ‘You need somebody to love you while you’re looking for somebody to love’. (more…)

The Hunger by Rachel Plummer

A family we know have just had their lives changed irrevocably. She worked as a school administrator, had been there for fifteen years. He was a sparky who ran his own small business with his son as an apprentice. Last summer, he had a massive stroke; he is unable to move one side of his body and is having to learn to speak again. He is in his forties. She had to give up her job to look after him, and their son has to find a new job. They are not well off, they don’t own their own home. Their future will be a struggle, and for the first time they will have to engage with the welfare system.

benefits_17I fear for them therefore, because the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is, unsurprisingly, falling well short of people’s ability to manage on the financial assistance provided. A survey has just come out from a national coalition of disability organisations, which shows that two thirds of claimants, not only felt they were not being given enough to live on, but that because of this they were falling ill. Of course, this creates a vicious circle because they then need medical assistance. The government denies this; their own survey found that 83% were satisfied – but even if we split the difference, it still means around 40% of people are struggling. (more…)

Tsunami Pilgrims by Khairani Barokka

islandThe warming of the sea is a waking beast; and so, the main effects of climate change are being felt by small islands and those on the coast, particularly in developing countries. I am currently reading Richard Georges’ forthcoming collection ‘Giant’ for a review for the Poetry School. The collection, which focuses on Georges’ home the British Virgin Islands is riven by fragility. Here in the UK, we often talk about the weather – a day of snow will make headline news. We too are an island, but are world away from the experiences of those whose coasts have always been open to the whims of nature, and now compounded by the impact of human consumption. And as I’m reminded by today’s poet, as a colonial power the UK was instrumental in sucking out the resilience of island populations through the extraction of natural resources. (more…)

Dr Lee and the Apple Tree/Silencing Big Ben by Katherine Lockton

lemn sissay christmas dinnersWhat is a working class Christmas? It is two hundred homeless people spending the day in Euston train station, out of the cold and being fed. It is the Christmas Dinner’s Project founded by the poet Lemn Sissay, which provides dinners for those aged 18-25 leaving care. It is organisations like Crisis, the Quakers, the Sally Army, supporting the homeless. There are a whole host of volunteering initiatives on the day. Christmas is about not forgetting those more in need than ourselves, whether they are Christian or not and whatever class and/or religion you may be. And yes, it is the escape from work (not from family though), over-indulging, getting ratted, forgetting what Boxing Day is really about & having a punch up instead, the list I am sure is endless on depending on your inclinations. (more…)

A Short History of San Antonio by Charles G Lauder, Jr.

One of the things I like about doing PP, is learning from the poems – not only the universal themes that have been the mainstay of poetry, but predominantly the history, past figures critical to left wings movements, whether at the global level, or in their own country at a particular time. I tend to be more interested in figures who fought against power, than those who went on to hold it (although being in power is the harder job, as countless leaders have shown in their failure). The lives of people like James Baldwin, Rosa Luxembourg, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Audre Lorde are fascinating in the paths they took to try to change the structures of power, and arguably did so in the more difficult pre-Internet, world war and revolutionary times.

Poets thus far on Proletarian Poetry have covered a number of prominent, yet sometimes not so well-known individuals who tried to hold power to account. Ian Duhig’s poem about the Mexican revolutionary Manuel Palofax who advised Zapato; Malika Booker’s lament to Walter Rodney, the Guyanese academic activist who was assassinated in a car bomb; Matt Duggan’s poem about Wat Tyler the 14th century leader of the peasants’ revolt; Catherine Graham’s poem about the writer Jack Common feted by George Orwell; John Mole’s poem of the ‘peasant poet’ John Clare; Lemn Sissay with Sparkcatchers, about the Bow Matchwomen’s strike, and Jon Tait’s Kinmont Willie, a 16th century border raider against the English. Then of course there are the poems about people, (relations, friends of poets) who led so-called ordinary lives, yet did extraordinary things when looking back from our comparative prosperity and safer lives.

I’m very pleased therefore to add another such poem to the site, with Charles Lauder’s A Short History of San Antonio, which in fact brings the two aforementioned aspects into one; as Charles explains, ‘it started as a personal tale of my great-grandmother’s pecan tree but as poems often do, expanded into one also of Emma Tenayuca (pictured) in the Pecan Shellers Strike of January 1938, her life as a union organizer and fighter for workers’ rights (especially Mexican women).’ As Charles refers to her, she was also known as La Pasionaria (the Passion Flower), like the more well-known (in Europe at least), Isidora Dolores Ibárruri Gómez, who became General Secretary of the Communist Party after her role in the Spanish Civil War and coined the phrase, ‘no pasaran’ (they shall not pass). The juxtaposition of these OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAof stories two women in Mexico and Texas, is so impressive in connecting the personal with the more general sweep of history, and makes for a great read.

Charles G Lauder, Jr, was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, and has lived in the UK for the past seventeen years. His poems have appeared internationally and he has published two pamphlets: Bleeds (2012) and Camouflaged Beasts (2017). ‘A Short History of San Antonio’ is part of a new series of political poems. He is also the Assistant Editor for The Interpreter’s House.

 

A Short History of San Antonio

Sixteen men in dungarees and Zapata moustaches,
the dustiness of their skin revealing
how long they’ve been in Texas,
drink coffee on the newly built
front porch, legs dangling over the edge
while the foreman’s wife hangs doors,
strolls along the garage’s tin roof
hammer in hand, looking for loose sections.
This will be her house, this tree
her personal supply of pecans.

                                        (barefoot La Pasionaria eats ice cream
                                        with her grandfather in Plaza del Zacate
                                        after Sunday morning mass at St. Agnes’s,
                                        listens to an anarchist read newspaper accounts
                                        of revolution in Mexico, of the FBI snatching
                                        and deporting radical leftists, of the Klan’s plan
                                        to parade through the city; it will be a few years
                                        before La Pasionaria organizes her first strike,
                                        spends her first night in jail, two hundred of them
                                        in a space meant for sixty)

Underneath this canopy, the foreman’s wife thinks,
there will be a patio of crazy paving
with places to sit and drink iced tea,
a red-and-silver two-wheeled barrel
flavoring pecans overhead with barbecued
pork shoulder and chuck roast; in October
the tree will throw down a gauntlet of pecans,
their husks like swollen wrinkled yellow eyelids
that must be peeled back, the shell heel-smashed
or delicately cracked over a tin baking tray.

                                        (La Pasionaria discovers Thomas Paine
                                        and Karl Marx, marches and demonstrates
                                        for Mexican women rolling cigars, sewing clothes
                                        in dirt-floor homes lit by kerosene lamp
                                        with no running water or electricity; she learns
                                        about those in white aprons and thin cotton dresses,
                                        with their Si and ¿Baño, por favor?
                                        
herded onto long benches in airless rooms
                                        facing a line of washed-out oil cans and piles of pecans
                                        that must be spun into gold by day’s end)

The foreman’s wife doles out pecans piecemeal
to children and grandchildren like an advance
on an inheritance to see what they make of it,
returning at Christmas with pies and candied yams,
sugar cookies and snickerdoodles,
served after mass to East Coast cousins
with a la mode tales of stupid Mexicans
and an admonishment that ‘a pee-can
is what you keep under the bed in case of emergency.’

                                        (twelve thousand women gather in the park
                                        chanting La Pasionaria’s name; she organizes
                                        pickets, hands out leaflets, ladles soup;
                                        police and Anglos fear the West Side tide
                                        is turning from brown to red, storm picket lines
                                        with bricks and bats while the Klan burn effigies;
                                        the union fears she is too much a communist
                                        and puts a man in charge to end the strike;
                                        the shellers get three more brown pennies
                                        and someone to fix the scales
                                        while men roll cracking machines
                                        into the spaces where they used to sit)

The foreman’s wife has to tear down
and rebuild the garage for being two inches
over the property line, her hammer stained
with the squirrel that bit her son’s calf.
On the garage walls, she hangs
old license plates, tools, and a bathtub
for making gin. Sometimes, she stays up
all night playing cards. She makes
her grandchildren hold the chickens
while she wields the axe. As a widow,
she transforms the house into a duplex,
takes in tenants. Her great-grandchildren
find her on the garage roof mending leaks.

                                        (La Pasionaria runs through an underground tunnel,
                                        as protestors storm the auditorium, rip out seats,
                                        smash windows, where she was just speaking;
                                        she tries to find work, but even under an alias
                                        she is known; she flees to the West Coast
                                        for twenty years; when she returns, she discovers
                                        murals of herself on the walls of laundromat, gas station,
                                        elementary school; she teaches literacy
                                        to Mexican children in the old barrio;
                                        mourners bring pieces of steel to her funeral)