(REVIEW) Eclogues for Idle Workers, by Holly Pester
Alex Grafen considers Holly Pester's Eclogues for Idle Workers (Distance No Object, 2019), a work that engages with the eclogue form to ask critical questions of gendered leisure and labour, and what affordances of time might be offered in the space of dialogue and exchange.
Distance No Object, the small press run by Luke Roberts and Amy Tobin, recently published the text of Holly Pester’s radio play under the title Eclogues for Idle Workers. As ‘Poems for Idle Workers’, the play was recorded for BBC Radio 4 with Maggie Nicols and Keeley Forsyth voicing the two co-workers, Magatha and Terry, whose exchanges and monologues make up the seven poems.
There are a few changes from the radio play as performed, mostly minor. In the absence of Pester’s introduction to the radio programme, which does something to set parameters for interpretation, the published pamphlet announces its relationship to Virgil’s Eclogues more loudly, in the titles of individual poems as well as the title of the pamphlet. Otherwise, the poems’ titles are trimmed, as is the vocal ornamentation that Nicols and Forsyth brought to their parts.
The number of Pester’s eclogues – seven to Virgil’s ten – indicates that we are not meant to decode a neatly schematic relationship. Occasionally, specific motifs from Virgil are refashioned within Pester’s eclogues. So, the beechwood cups carved by Alcimedon become the office’s ‘one clean cup’, adorned with ‘I love coffee’:
It’s yellow, it’s bright it’s absurdly big and will hold so much we can share it
Similarly, Menalcas’s invitation to Mopsus that they ‘sit together here, where the hazels mix with elms’ provides the template for Magatha’s invitation to Terry to sit down by the bins. Archaisms and slightly inflated poeticisms may also be a nod: they allow the poems to occupy an office-world both recognisable and estranged; in that play on incongruity they are frequently very funny.
More important than these details, however, is the eclogue as a variation on the work-song, a genre that Pester has written on elsewhere. If Virgil’s Eclogues show us shepherds taking a break from work, Pester’s subjects are not only translated to ‘a very un-bucolic neoliberal workplace’, but the nature of that workplace means that ‘a worker’s body and home and imagination has become the workplace itself’. So, while the poems chart a workday chronologically through the moments in which work’s demands are evaded – coffee break, toilet break, lunch break, etc – that evasion is only ever partially successful. Art and leisure are snatched from work, but still struggle in its mesh.
When George Puttenham considered the eclogue’s claims to being the original form of poetry, he conceded that shepherds were the founders of ‘familiar conuersation’, disputation and ‘amorous musicks’, just as shepherds originated the art of ‘lawful acquisition and purchase’ and what Puttenham calls ‘forreine possession’, that is, the control of property beyond their immediate person. However, he denied the eclogue historical priority as a poetic form on the grounds that its purpose was not mimetic, but that the ‘rusticall manner of loues and communication’ were a means by which the poet could ‘insinuate and glaunce at greater matters’.
Pester’s Eclogues resist the neat distinction of manner and glaunce. The lives of Magatha and Terry do point to structures greater than themselves, but they are exemplary evidence within a critique rather than a vantage-point or mirror-image through which critique can be made. If ‘[a]musement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work’ (A&H), then such an attempt at escape would be beside the point. The ‘idle workers’ for whom the eclogues are written are not just people encountered away from work but people caught in a constant state of not living up to the demands of a system that has only the most utilitarian interest in their welfare. They are always idle and always workers, but there are different types of idleness at stake. The call, then, must come from inside the house.
The workplace may be diffused beyond its physical location, but that location retains significance. It provides the opportunity for exchanges between Magatha and Terry, exchanges which express possibilities of tenderness, romance and solidarity; simultaneously, it comes with conditions that stunt the development of these possibilities beyond a certain point. ‘I’d give up all my breaks for genuine leisure with you’ says Magatha, and we believe it, but we also believe in the hierarchisation that distinguishes ‘the propertied and contracted’ Magatha from Terry. That hierarchy continues to exist despite rhetoric that might wave it away, and it sets limits not only on solidarity but on the sort of shared knowledge that would serve as the necessary conditions for such solidarity. Magatha talks about ‘the girl [Terry] knew [...] from the bottom floor with sad eyes’ and affirms that ‘Nobody knows why she left’, while Terry’s contradiction – ‘I know why she left’ – goes unregistered. Casualised and precarious, Terry and the girl who left may share some connection with Puttenham’s small-scale proprietors but perhaps share as much with the sheep.
In the recording, the voices of Magatha and Terry sound out against the machinery of the office: ‘coffee fx made by mouth / + the materiality of the mouth, sipping’. The walls breathe, as if the bodies of office-workers have become digested and incorporated into the processes of the office itself. As Magatha protests: ‘I’m as resourceful as the machine and can shout too’. The blurred borders of the mechanical and organic have been anticipated by the cover: a reproduced multimedia piece by Charlotte Prodger, where greyscale plant leaves appear as if overlaid by strips of zeros.
The poems are informed by a digestive logic. Ingestion – of coffee, cereal bar, aspirin, time (‘just eat the minutes’) – leads inescapably to expulsion of all kinds: the toilet break, the mechanics of speech and the hot air of the hand-dryer, whose exhaust echoes the workers’ exhaustion. The result is a recognition of the waste involved in forcing these life-processes into the rhythm of a hand-dryer:
Imagine what we could do in this room full of hesitant legs and racing hearts instead of this
The poems build to the distinction of tiredness from laziness, with the latter emerging not only as a reasonable response – ‘I’d rather be lazy / than feel punched’ – but as a positive virtue and credible tactics. ‘Thinking more in proportion to the fire exits than the building’ is a reasonable manoeuvre for self-preservation.
What chances of proper communion exist between Magatha and Terry are projected into a future, beyond the end of the work-day and beyond the end of the poem, into an evening that we know will itself continue to be eaten at by work, which may also bring forgetfulness of one another. What option is there then but to hope for a future beyond work of this kind?
Eclogues for Idle Workers is available to order from Distance No Object.
Text: Alex Grafen
 The quotations in this sentence are from Pester’s introduction to the radio play.