• Nell Whittaker

(SPAM Cuts) 'Untitled' by Brendan Joyce

At dusk, the blurry silhouette of a man with a bunch of flowers is foregrounded. Clouds in greys and pinks scatter over the sky, and a 'no turning' road sign appears to the right of the figure.
Image: Alice Hill-Woods

In this SPAM Cut of Brendan Joyce’s untitled poem, Nell Whittaker draws out the resonances of sad hospitality like a splinter. Diffractive strands of knuckles, dishpits and time bundle together in the direction of hope.

Before, I would eat off anybody’s plate in the dishpit starving & hated for such brazenness. I’d wash my hands so many times a shift that the space between my knuckles would turn into little spiderwebs of dead skin. Hygiene in the restaurant was a stage whisper. Now I wash only my hands & the groceries. Whoever cleans a place knows its ghosts & becomes them. The unemployment office is telling me I didn’t earn those unreported tips. I didn’t earn those plates I ate off of either I just took them & hid, hated & ate.

This untitled poem was posted as a jpeg on Twitter by the poet Brendan Joyce, who lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio. It was written in April 2020: shops and restaurants were shuttered, and the only people out in the streets were those working for Instacart, Deliveroo, Grubhub etc. The US unemployment rate peaked at a level not seen since data collection started in 1948, to a number of about 23.1 million people.

The poem’s opening, ‘Before’, a word that alludes to time’s cleaving in two in early 2020, is located in a restaurant, as indicated by ‘dishpit’: the area out of sight of the customers, where the food is scraped into bins –– or eaten –– and plates are stacked, cutlery put in water, etc. In America, the restaurant has become one of the spaces where the pandemic’s inconsistent application across the working and middle classes is most evident. This was evidenced on (my version of) the internet when restaurants reopened after the first period of lockdown: the customers celebrated their ability to be cooked for and washed up after, while the underpaid and likely uninsured staff were back to work, the pandemic raging on, often without adequate protective equipment.

Even after reading this poem over and over I read dishpit as dipshit, perhaps because it’s an unfamiliar term, but perhaps too because of the cramped savageness of this opening image: the poem’s speaker eating from the used plates of the customers, ‘starving & hated / for such brazenness’. Hatred, here, is a manoeuvre used by the other staff to distance them from a public display of such animal vulnerability; ‘brazenness’ a form of need which is qualified by its being public.

Here, the obsessive attention to hygiene required in a restaurant is contrasted against the hygienic requirements of an airborne virus, and the introduction of gloves, masks and sanitiser into daily life. The poet, pre-pandemic, was a busboy. The declarative, ‘Whoever cleans a place knows / its ghosts & becomes them’, asserts that that if you clean somewhere for a living, you learn to conduct your observation of a place in pre-emption of where the dirt will come to be. In this way, you feel more affinity to the mess than to the state of cleanliness, both disruptors in one space, with which you are engaged in a war of attrition that ends only when you leave or die. It means, too, that you precipitate the movements of others in the space, are able to trace by their train of wrappers, tissues, footsteps, even dust and hairs, where they have been, where they have pissed or eaten; in this sense, you ghost their steps. Cleaning occasions a form of intimacy with space, one that –– being unasked for –– becomes resented, because any intimacy that is wrangled from you makes you hateful.

The poem turns on the contrast between the strength of the will and the immateriality of the body: the space (note: not skin) between the knuckles turning into ‘little spiderwebs’, the ‘ghosts’ of the place that the speaker is in the process of becoming. One of the pandemic’s dubious privileges has been to return the labour of the hands to the self; in this poem, the speaker is responsible for cleaning their own hands and food –– not the tables, plates and cutlery of the uncountable others passing through a restaurant in a day. The speaker is at least able to become only their own ghost.

What the pandemic allowed in terms of physical integrity it removed in terms of economic stability –– if, indeed, stability existed before. The tips, which form the majority of a restaurant worker’s income, are undeclared and consequently (in pandemic-related funding models) unremunerated; these tips did not exist, the unemployment office says, and therefore the labour that was performed in their honour was unreal too. This poem is one of a series called ‘Weekly Claims’, which, in the US, are the application for unemployment benefits the claimant has to file each week; Joyce collected these in the chapbook Unemployment Insurance in May 2020. The poems were weekly claims insofar as they were sold, by Joyce, for money: money which the American state continues to withhold.

The poem thus makes a problem of the speaker’s existence, the food, the tips, all of which are unrecognised by official means and ‘unreal’ as a result (the speaker might be described in economic terms as ‘slipped through the cracks’, a phrase that implies thinness, paper-ish-ness). Both low-waged work and its absence obliterate the speaker, sends them (by the last stanza) into hiding. Joyce is attentive to (and often savagely funny about) the collision of the intimate and the structurally violent. Another untitled poem, released on Twitter, opens:

passive income means the water leaking through my ceiling is a store of value for my landlord as much as it might be a mouse’s drink.

That poem ends with an image of the strategic smallness –– and multiplicity –– that might be utilised in formulating resistance:

the city sleeps like a mouse after stuffing itself into the walls of an absent landlord’s nest egg. I’m creeping on a comeuppance.

What opportunity the ‘Before…’ poem might have in its sights may be contained in the final words, which describe the person as object of hatred in the opening stanza becoming the one doing the hating. It is by such hating that a sense of self may be bolstered against assault; it is a decisive feeling, to hide away, hate and feed oneself doubly on that which others do not want, and on the rage that accompanies these uneven displays of privation and uncaringness.

Hate is a productive feeling, as evidenced elsewhere in another unnamed poem belonging to Weekly Claims, which consists mostly of one long and beautiful sentence, worth quoting in full:

The breeze through the sycamore trees’ sickly leaves that screams worsening working conditions, the squirrel taunting the cat from its clocking perch, the possums hunting rats below in the arson lot, the rats getting hunted, the cloud of bats rising from the school’s roof into October orange cloud cover, the spider sewing its night against a security light, the raccoons casing the attic windows, the millipede ducking a stream of piss in the urinal, the mouse ripping its leg off in the glue trap, the dog singing its song to the whole block of dogs, even the moon in its sorry state of endless retort — hates cops too, you are not alone.

The world conjured here –– organic, urban –– is fundamentally opposed to policing, a system that, being so grossly unpredictable, dishonest, and misshapen, precludes the possibility of a shared, stable psychic world. The animals and weather formations here are interconnected, firmly located (the school roof, the attic windows) and industrious. Everything is linked through the connective tissue of the present and the neighbourhood (at odds with the ghosts of the ‘Before…’ poem), which are an expression of a dysfunctional sense of time and space.

The arc of the universe bends towards hating cops, you are not alone. Joyce illustrates both the transformation of hatred into the possibility of thinking otherwise, and the expansion of imaginative capacity that accompanies abolitionism. Something of the hopefulness of the first pandemic spring should –– and can be –– nurtured; in Unemployment Insurance, Joyce discloses that the ‘firmly anti-union’ employees in his workplace were considering a mass walk-out before the statewide closure order went out. ‘This is the most important event for worker consciousness in my lifetime’, he said a year ago. ‘My capacity for hope has not at all diminished’.

Text: Nell Whittaker

Image: Alice Hill-Woods

Published: 22/6/21