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Tom Jenks

"A Year at Work" by Erkembode, pub. if p then q, 56pp, £4.00

I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper weight,
All the misery of manilla folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places…

          ‘Dolor’, Theodore Roethke

You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your colleagues. The workplace is characterised by involuntary association. What random tides pitch us together on these mystical islands of economic necessity with their motivational slogans, instant coffee granules and open plan wildernesses? And how to communicate with those to whom, in other circumstances, we would have little reason to speak? John Cage’s definition of poetry (‘I have nothing to say / and I am saying it’) could equally be applied to the modern office, where interaction often takes the form of stock phrases, so transparent in their utility that we barely notice them. Erkembode’s stroke of conceptual genius is to foreground these routine communications and transform them into a poetic form. Erkembode emerges as a contemporary counterpart of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, who refuses all requests to discharge his clerical duties by saying he would prefer not to. One gets the impression that Erkembode would also prefer not to, but like so many of us, must. Their three-hundred and sixty-five-day negotiation of their own compromised non-space accumulates minutiae into a matter of record.

A Year at Work is deceptively, beautifully simple. Each page has the same structure: the days of the working week set out in a rudimentary serif font, the sort of font you might see on asign Sellotaped to a toilet door requesting that you leave the cubicle in a state in which you’d wish to find it. Into these temporal delineations, Erkembode slots a variety of material. The book begins with fragments of exchanges between co-workers, a litany of sorts:

          MONDAY
          It’s only Monday, it’ll get better.
          TUESDAY
          Fire drill this morning.
          WEDNESDAY
          It feels like Monday even though it’s a Wednesday.
          THURSDAY
          Alright for a Thursday I s’pose.
          FRIDAY
          Finally!

These fragments, banal yet rendered elliptical through recontextualisation, accumulate, gathering momentum, assuming their own negative gravity through weight of numbers. Around a quarter of the way through the book, this façade begins to crack, as if there is really nothing left to say or Erkembode themself has begun to crack. The five-day structure endures, but the writer begins to put different things into it, such as a list of one week’s financial transactions:

          MONDAY
          WITHDRAWAL £70.00
          TUESDAY
          ACC BAL £153.41
          WEDNESDAY
          AVAIL BAL £208.01
          THURSDAY
          DID YOU KNOW BALANCE ENQUIRIESARE FREE?
          FRIDAY
          PLEASE RETAIN OR DISPOSE OF YOUR RECEIPT THOUGHTFULLY

or trips to Sainsburys:

          MONDAY
          SAUSAGE ROLL £0.70
          TUESDAY
          KIT KAT CHUNKY £1.00
          WEDNESDAY
          BALANCE DUE £1.70
          THURSDAY
          CASH £2.00
          FRIDAY
          CHANGE £0.30
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This last extract gives an insight into Erkembode’s methods. Is this a week’s worth of supermarket transactions, or a day’s worth stretched over a week? Is the writer losing patience with their construct, undermining it out of boredom? Robert Fitterman and Vanessa Place talk about pure and impure conceptual writing, the former characterised by strict adherence to a concept with minimal authorial intervention, what Peter Jaeger, drawing a similar distinction, calls ‘classical appropriation’. Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day, a verbatim transcription of a single edition of the New York Times, provides an example. The latter strain, impure conceptualism, or what Jaeger terms ‘post-classical appropriation’, is less strict, leaving more room for authorial intervention and the manipulation of material. It is in this category, if categories are appropriate, that we can place Erkembode. Here, the concept is a framing construct rather than a set of rules. The structure of A Year at Work, rather than being an Oulipian obstacle course, provides Erkembode with storage units, places to put things. It gives what Rachel Blau DuPlessis, referring to poetics, terms ‘permission to continue’.

As the book unfolds, the contents of these units become more varied. Images appear: a probiotic strawberry yogurt flanked by actual strawberries accompanied by the instruction to ‘Take a look at this picture. What is it of?’; a pugnacious leprechaun for St Patrick’s Day. The text, too, becomes more gnomic, as if the centre cannot hold or the threads of the year are becoming tangled, feeding back upon themselves: ‘With nothing but our dreams’; ‘And memories of who you’ve been’; ‘Scattered forth like seeds’. We have more lists including, appropriately, a list of negatives:

          MONDAY
          NO ONION!
          TUESDAY
          NO KETCHUP!
          WEDNESDAY
          NO MUSTARD!
          THURSDAY
          NO PICKLE!
          FRIDAY
          2 fish tacos

The book closes with a run of weeks where nothing appears to have happened, the days present but with nothing in them other than empty sets of brackets. We’re left to wonder what these weeks were. Sickness? Annual leave? Periods of unemployment? These records of absence are grouped together, devoid of content and meaning, sectioned off as having no place in the cycle of productive economic activity, as if without work we do not exist. These fallow tracts of time terminate with a single word ‘Inselaffen’, a derogatory German term (‘island monkey’) for a British person.

As concept-driven as A Year at Work is, it can also be read as oblique autobiography, the author emerging from a thicket of chit-chat, daydreams and interactions through selection and presentation, by the traces they leave. The concept of A Year at Work gives it shape and meaning but the same concept in someone else’s hands would produce a different book. A Year at Work seems to me to exemplify a very contemporary way of writing, collaging written and found material, both textual and visual, without particularly drawing attention to it. It also exemplifies all that is vital for me about experimental poetics, an openness to the world in its totality, with all its temporary furniture, cheap food and tiny transactions, in all its water damaged, yellow-stickered grandeur.

 
Copyright © Tom Jenks, 2019