Jill Magi would likely never hang a sign, “Poet at work,” beside her bed, but she might very well embroider it everywhere else. Her recent book Labor births a relation between poetry and work that Saint-Pol-Roux never would have dreamed. Ideas go to work here. With conceptual zeitgeist and the rough lyric of the documentary, Labor overflows its namesake’s dimensions, contours, and capitalist logics. The book defies poetic and economic genre, such that everything is writing and writing is work and work could play out “as pleasure / as social self.” Magi’s formula proffers transcendence—the kind you might get riding the elevator to the top of a large library, your gut unable to keep up with your idea, your idea leaping off the roof, flittering archival papers everywhere and with everyone. Labor envisions a nameless collectivity that literally detaches from the status quo and lifts off: 


there are people hovering in the air

Hovering between them 

are things of everyday existence.

They clasp hands.


While Breton and the Surrealists discover the poem in dream, Magi turns to the everyday of creative-academic labor—its paperwork, furniture, gestures, architecture, and relations. She spins the labor of the teaching-artist-poet and its precarious conditions into the fibers of her book-length investigation of power. What is Labor’s story one hundred and eighty years after Marx’s Kapital? A slip, a fall, not from grace but the echo’s there. Magi confesses, “That spring I slipped on rotting blossoms on the way to work.” Rotten beauty, rotten potential, occasions Magi’s profound exegesis not only of the concept of labor but of art’s long-doomed marriage to the institution. Labor rises up from the Foucauldian notion that the archive orders knowledge and wields its power, suggesting that to stop this power the archive must be disordered—this is the work, creative and otherwise. The de(con)structive worker and subject, dreaming against her own functionality, necessarily frays in labor’s narrative and re-gathers herself in this book. Three she’s and four I’s populate the story: Sadie the complaints administrator, J. the tenured archaeologist, Miranda the adjunct teaching-artist, and a lyric “I” we might read as Magi. Labor needs multiple personas as a partial response to the failed categorical logic of institutions themselves, “Because I cannot unbraid Reciprocal, Antagonistic, and Neutral.” Magi unbraids and rebraids what constitutes the work place, devising an anti-capitalist anti-logic for making. Sadie drowns documentation in “brackish water” and “inserts them into the boxes of the labor archive,” her own “alien files devoid of call numbers.” The archaeologist “J. slips her trowel underneath a sign in the hallway and it lifts. It comes off easily.” Miranda lets class out early. Slips abound. Each dismantles the university and its protocols, offering a new model for how to work. Each mode of writing in Labor functions as potentiality, not product, such as Miranda’s list of titles, “1. Institute at the Revolving Door / 2. Hello, Morning of My Full Employment / 3. Altar of W-2s Destroyed by B-52s,” or J.’s unfinished manuscript “My Seneca Village,” which details class plans to subvert an actual teacher’s guide on the African-American village razed to build Central Park. Again and again, this poetry invokes pedagogy as inseparable from its own making: “I told the students to bend down like / kneeling and touch the cornerstone of / the only visible remains: a school.” Sections titled “Handbook” list conceptual art one-offs to mess with an archive turned battleground. As Magi writes, “A war will always enter the archive to structure / the enemy.” In dismantling the enemy, the question becomes whether the work of poetry is on or off the page. What if we followed Magi’s tantalizing instructions?



Create tapestries: 


Embroider lists of all the jobs you have ever 

had. Use your handwriting. Write ‘worked for a 

furrier, picked strawberries, taught gymnastics, 

tried to place refugees in jobs during the last 

recession.’ Hang these soft lists from the ceiling. 


The distinction between soft and hard, and the drive toward the soft, river-soaked documents, video ephemera, tampering’s traces, forces us to ask What else? when determining the value of our labor or its record. Effusing potential and process, not the made thing itself, Magi’s book transcends the capitalist fall, ever undocumenting, unofficiating itself, becoming in a sense, unfindable, and maybe even untaxable. Magi closes, “Inside the room without a door a room they never knew they were building a room without maps . . . we finally sit down shake loose our names.” Labor connects us through destroying the very rooms (of schools, hospitals, prisons) that house the semblance of our connectedness. It doesn’t wait for permission to assemble, to leave or to enter, but peoples a room with “Who is allowed / to be without. Who is allowed to be read / who is allowed to be soft petals.” Labor breathes into a space where you can feel the fear of each unknown step, but if you slip, you won’t be alone.

—Karen Lepri

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