You are on page 1of 2

Tyler Cain Lacy to Jill Magis LABOR

Jill Magis newest work, LABOR (Nightboat, 2014), should be required reading for anyone
and everyone in academia, teachers and students alike, and anyone else interested in human
labor. This work is for people with a name and people who dont know theirs. Something
tells me this is everyone.
The book jacket calls the work Fiction/Poetry, which seems like an endless spire into a
discussion of genre definitions that makes one want to throw their arms up in the air and call
it a day, but really, the work defies categorization and, indeed, deals first and foremost with
questioning dichotomies and boundariesbetween work and play, gender, and genre, to
name a fewin the search for a name. This massive undertaking comes into focus through
Magis sharp formal risk-taking. The book oscillates (though I want to say constellates)
between three different modes of engaging with the notion of human workthreads of
what we might call poems; threads of the fiction between the dominant characters J.,
Miranda, and Sadie; and threads of the manuscript in-progress called My Seneca Village.
How can one cover so much ground in a book of only 80-some pages? In the same way that
the work defies rigid categorization as fiction or poetryits foundation is a narrative that
unfolds in threads that also have an eye and ear to song with each seam, and there are formal
leaps and bounds that recall the poeticMagi understands the power of questions. The
book is filled with them, and, of course, it remains clear that the work comes out of
questioning that which contains/constrains us, whether gender, race, or class.
As is often the case with inquiry-driven writing, these questions stoke the fire of
conversation more than hard answers might. Consider the following passage, for example:
Who is allowed. Only comfort. Who is
allowed to be on fire. To be named. Who
is allowed to be black. Who is allowed
to be without. Who is allowed to be read
who is allowed to be soft petals.
And what if I am not? (57-58)
The work is brimming with questioning ones place within societys rigid taxonomies. More
than simply the search for a name, it is a search for ones identity, only part of which, after
all, involves a name. This relentless questioning radiates an honesty and sincerity that draw
the reader in not only toward an empathy for the speakers and characters, but toward an
engagement with the political systems in which theyand all of us beyond the books
Certainly, so much of human labor is making a place for oneself amid the impersonal world
of work (in this book, for example, the work is adjuncting, but really its any other part-time
work which treats the individual as a commodity). But Magi seems to understand that its not
just that, but also about names: I entered the archive and looked for my name. Instead I

found the red of certain fonts an international idea the worker. Feeling unorganized
unscholarly I gave the librarian my card and in order to keep my loneliness a secret I smiled
for her (28).
Whats really at stake here, and what really anchors the work in general, is the question of
whether identity comes from a unified plural, or a whole singular; that is, whether whats
needed is an identity measured not so much by individuality, but by a collective and
communal. Or, are these even able to be parsed? Can the individual be seen inside the
vacuum? Consider, for example, this passage in which the main speaker is trying to find
work teaching:
I crossed the thresholds
that lead to his office. We shook hands I sat under the famous painting. He
opened his computer and I watched his eyes flick back and forth watched
him swivel around to pick up my resume from his printer saying here you
are. He took time to glance at my document and I looked down at my wrist
bone my fingers and rings. I uncapped my pen. I saw a book with a gold
award sticker on his desk and I tried to read as many other names as I could.
The speaker is concerned about herself in this case, but also about the other names involved
in this system in which she too finds herself struggling.
Ultimately, LABOR culminates in a lucid instance of un-naming which furthers the
questions regarding identity all throughout the work: The archive is on fire and we are
faceless. Inside the room without a door the room they never knew we were building a room
without maps with pearls lined up in curving rows we finally sit down shake loose our
names (76). This triumphant scene seems to suggest a move toward collective identity, a
name that might have more power, more agency, through community, rather than individual
singularity, the pitfalls of which Magi discloses throughout the work.
This is not to say, however, that the constant struggle for ones identity comes neatly
packaged to a close at the end of the book, and rightly so. LABOR is a record of struggle, as
most human labor is, and the works lasting quality rests primarily on Magis bravery to
record itto present a multitude of questions and resist the pressure to answer them.
If Magis book seems somber and full of gloomwell, it is. However, her record of struggle
also appears, I dare say, hopeful. In the end, Magis instructions (channeling lines from Alice
Notleys Alma, or the Dead Women) are to [t]rack these pages / playfully. Because you have
a listening name and love will pull you back (80). Coming to a close with a word like
playfulness suggests a respite from labor, a joyous act shared with others in which perhaps
the anxiety of identity is relieved by the pleasure of company. And this company can be a
community of individualsa plural youor a complete individual, a name to which
you not only answer, but to which you also listenthat is, something more along the
lines of a conversation.