In the six-line poem "Sway Bar Blues" from 2016's Works & Days, Bernadette Mayer wittily captures the Sisyphean quality of labor:

Oh sway bar
Another incomprehensible
Automobile part, it cost
$200 to fix so Phil
can get to his job
to pay the sway bar bill1

This apostrophe to a car part moves us swiftly from ode to parody. Mayer is ridiculing a familiar problem needing to work to spend money to get to work. The bathetic rhymes ("-ible," "Phil," and "bill") give the poem a sense of completion, consolidating phonetically the circuit of labor and reproduction it describes. But this poem is also about that sinking feeling, as the rhymes lead us down the page, of being trapped between rising expenses and stagnant wages. It is tempting to read this poem's circuit as a microcosm for capital's larger cycles, its totalizing structures of exploitation. Rather than expanding outward, however, the poem is constrained, individualized, attentive not to capitalism's organizing structures but the way these are felt in daily experience.

Taking a cue from Mayer's wordplay, you can see how the workaday problem that occasions this poem leads to another more theoretical one that, I would like to suggest, is a central concern of this recent collection. The problem that emerges is the incomprehensibility of the things that hold sway over us. Works & Days, subtitled "Spring Journal, March 20 to June 21," extends Mayer's lifelong experiment with self-documentation and diaristic forms. It also invites us to think through the difficulty of reflecting our lives back to ourselves to see not only their shapes, but what shapes them. In Marxian terms, the poems try to grasp the relation between a systematic totality and the phenomenological particularities of life within it. The paratactic mode of the journal, with its sequential descriptions, allows Mayer to encode this conceptual problem into a tonal ambivalence. In "April 22," Mayer's seasonal observations of "buds on the lilac bush, many chives, the hepatica, some green leaves" morph into a perception of hostility, where "grackles seem like prison guards."2 The forces of state violence and capital manifest locally, shading the poet's sight of a flock of birds or "the guy who bought the field" next to Mayer's house (whom she later gives the acronym GBF or "gubofi": he recurs as the sort-of-antagonist of the collection). It is spring, "the season of temptation, about plants, incipience," that elicits these impressionistic meditations on a set of interrelated questions about reproduction.

By reproduction, I mean something like mimesis the poem's representation of daily life, the world and the self. But the term also refers to the process of reproducing oneself materially and all the labor that requires: bathing, dressing, feeding oneself and others. In a Marxian register, reproduction further signifies the reproduction of the laborer and their labor-power. Relatedly, it also describes the way in which the process of production conducted between the capitalist and the laborer not only produces commodities and value, but reproduces that social relation and indeed the entirety of capitalist social relations. In Mayer's poems, I see a provocation to think these different senses of reproduction mimetic and social together and comparatively. This is an old problem: is the poem doomed to reproduce the social relations of capital from which it emerges, or does it exercise some autonomy? In the readings I give here, I will try to suggest that Mayer's poems offer not so much a solution to this problem as ways productively to outflank it. In place of this opposition, I want to think about reproduction as on one hand a necessity and burden and on the other as the stuff of life: a vital pleasure bearing the traces of freedom. On this level of analysis, comparison strives towards the possibility of another register of value altogether.

Works & Days is a continuation of the earlier projects of Memory and Midwinter Day insofar as it marshals art for an interrogation of the gendering of the activities that keep the world turning. In Wages Against Artwork, Silvia Federici describes housework's transformation "into a natural attribute" as the means by which capital made us accept it as unwaged work.3 Federici's formulation invites us to conceive gender structurally in terms of a set of reproductive activities like cooking, cleaning, childcare and housework anchored to the identity 'woman'. In "Soule Sermon," Mayer expresses with amusing incredulity her disappointment with what Federici calls "capital's scheme for women": "I have worked / Hard all my life & I still have no house, no wife / No car, no flat-screen t.v. what does life mean?"4 This everyday poetics mediates the subjective qualities of gender as a dimension of sensual and cognitive experience with its objective dimension, the tethering of individuals to feminized reproductive activities that are typically low- or unwaged.5 But the real irony of these lines is that "capital's scheme for women" at least as Federici confronted it has undergone tectonic shifts. While many reproductive activities remain un- or underpaid, the nuclear family model that thrived under US Fordism has become increasingly anachronistic through a combination of stagnating wages and cuts to state-subsidized care. If the largely fragmentary, observational poems in Works & Days seem more modest formally than the exhaustive epics of the 70s and 80s, they represent in fact a sharpening of focus on "the critical mandate of Marxist-feminism," as Kay Gabriel puts it, "to think simultaneously the social dimensions of oppression on the one hand and exploitation on the other." 6

In this vein, I read the attention to personal, localized, and feminized experience in Works & Days as a way of thinking about totality. Mayer's attention to specificity doesn't represent a re-enchantment of the concrete as Amy De'Ath argues in this cluster, Mayer isn't interested in achieving some authentic consciousness with her poems. They don't pretend to a passive, ethnographic gaze, and what I am calling the poems' attention toward incomprehensibility never suggests a rejection of interpretation.7 Mayer's representation of reproduction the daily renewal of the conditions (sweeping, cooking, cleaning) that keep capitalism and its subjects ticking is more than simple description. It makes available a comparison between concrete particulars and abstract structures consonant with this Marxist-feminist project of thinking across gender's subjective and objective dimensions.

Take these lines from "Creepsville":

Millions of paper dollars
Suddenly come from behind a tree
While you're looking
Under a rock for money
To pay for a gift of pillows8

The reader finds themself in the present tense of a cartoon landscape, caught out by an animated, malevolent mass of currency. Despite the tactility of its imagery "paper," "rock," and "pillows" the poem feels like a guided act of imagination: as though before its first line, Mayer has asked you to close your eyes and picture this. "What do the dollars look like?" she prompts. The separation of "paper dollars" from "money" proposes a relation of difference between self-perpetuating, large-scale capital and the ungainly, awkward task of scraping together enough money in the day to sleep at night. In political economy as in natural science, Marx confirms "the correctness of the law discovered by Hegel, in his Logic, that at a certain point merely quantitative differences pass over by a dialectical inversion into qualitative differences."9 Unlike loose change under a rock, these millions move with intent and autonomy: "I'm afraid of this dollar-thing / It might eat me!" Mayer's hungry dollar-thing recalls the analogy of "the animal" with which Marx illustrates the logical absurdity of money. Commodities harbor use-values and also possess "spectrally objective" value, a "reification of social relations."10 But money is a real manifestation of value, such that the "abstract category" exists at the same concrete level as "the individuals from which the abstract category is derived."11 "It is as if, in addition to lions, tigers, hares, and all other really existing animals," Marx writes, "the animal would also exist, the individual incarnation of the entire animal kingdom."12 The cartoonishness and sense of make-believe in "Creepsville" render the absurdity of this hungry animal money. Realizing that abstractions like money and gender not only really exist but hold sway over you that's what gives you the creeps. The modal and optative verbs that shape the poem's final pronouncements register a sincere resistance to this:

I hope I never
Get eaten by money
So that my essence
Would emerge in its shit.

The poem translates the abstract back into the concrete in the passage from essence to shit. Mayer's visceral disgust here evokes the very tangible violence of capital's abstractions.13 Revulsion, hostility, a sinking feeling: these uneasy affects register something rotten in capital's essence.14

In Works & Days the abstract comes into view obliquely through the concrete and mundane. The everyday is not an authentic, substantive content, but the field in which we encounter what Beverley Best has called "the perceptual economy of capital."15 For Best, dominant thought forms in capitalist society are "systematic inversions of capital's real movement." This has an important bearing on how we understand consciousness as capital's thought forms are therefore not false or merely illusory, but real, objective, and socially produced. The possibility of a revolutionary consciousness then depends upon a "clear-eyed attention to the real movement of capital." So defined, ideology critique is both "the work of theorists" and a quotidian practice of "comparing one's own life experience against the day's dominant narratives and scrutinizing the difference." The humor but also the pathos of Mayer's poetry proceeds from here: the poem knows, on some level, that "life experience" as a comprehensible conceptual category becomes legible only against life's division into productive, consumptive, and reproductive activities. Nevertheless, it is here in the everyday, these poems suggest, where we can catch a glimpse of the truth of this dynamic, of "the phenomenal forms produced by the objective movement of capital."

However ontologically framed, nothing in these poems exists prior to or outside of this perceptual economy, from the "natural attributes" of gender to the first wasp of spring. This concept of consciousness is quite different from the class consciousness that is the privileged standpoint of labor, neither is it "false," nor something which needs "raising." The fetishism of value isn't an illusion in the sense that we have to be disillusioned. We can't but see valueestranged from the labor that produces it because value is a real abstraction. But does this limit to empirical knowledge necessarily limit what we can know conceptually? The poem "Wilderness" presents thought itself as the problem:

. . . I say if you think
Something three times, move to a different place
Even for a woman, it'd cost a small fortune
Best not to think but . . .

The poet doesn't want to get stuck in habits of thought, but the solution ("move to a different place") is easier said than done ("Even for a woman, it'd cost a small fortune"). Free-roaming thought runs aground on material exigency; in the end it's easier "not to think" at all. But here's what follows that 'but':

What is consciousness?
It's the drone
of the hummingbird's wings
Bird's wings
Heard by you
It's the humming
Birds seen by you
It's its nest
You happen upon
And eat the tiny eggs

"You" stumble upon consciousness with the poet. The abstract appears as the poet names sensual, concrete particulars the sound, sight and taste of the hummingbird and its eggs. The negation of "not thinking" shifts from a closing-down to something generative: in a world of real abstractions, consciousness is all in the doing. The passive constructions and chiastic movement of these lines ("the drone / of the hummingbird's wings / Bird's wings / Heard by you") tease the possibility of an active passivity where subject and world meet each other. What is surprising is that these lines don't position "you" as the perceiver against the perceived, but instead as perceiver and receiver. For the subject receiving the nourishment and natality of these "tiny eggs", these lines hum with oracular potential. How do we make the leap from empirical to conceptual knowledge, from fragmented experience to social totality? The movement of this poem from a sense of entrapment within thought to something more expansive figures an ambivalence constitutive of the "perceptual economy" of capital. To "happen upon" consciousness as something that happens to us speaks to our absolute capture in capital's onto-epistemological distortions. Equally however, this attention to the dilemma of consciousness as one of movement and actionallows us to reconceptualize what disalienation might mean. Here is an image of nourishment that exceeds the necessity and burden of capitalist reproduction these tiny eggs, the stuff of life.

An image of nourishment demands a vision of militancy. I want to close by thinking about how Mayer's poetry imagines alternatives to capitalism. To do so, I will draw upon an essay by Christopher Nealon about literary comparison and value. In a reading of Jasper Bernes and Boethius, he considers the "deployment of literary techniques that certainly rework older traditions of poetic materialism but depend on them, and acknowledge it."16 In Boethius, chiasmus plots the relationship "between suffering and matter," the turning-point of a Neoplatonic story about matter returning to its creator.17 Bernes picks up this criss-crossing of matter and misery and maps it onto capital's mathematical rationalizations, the domination of time and space that are for Nealon the X/Y axes of Bernes's poem. This underscores the deep ambivalence of chiasmus, which in this reading figures not only spiritual transcendence but the contradictory movements by which capital traps its subjects. Nealon traces this ambivalence further into the resistance of time and space to capture; if capitalism aims at the utter domination of space by time, chiasmus signals the preponderance of duration and matter that reveals capital's great vulnerability as well as its awesome strength. Bernes's poem performs a formal crossing and recrossing that presents "a bafflement and dismay about the power of capital that nonetheless connects to a deepening resistance to it."18 For Nealon, this play with reversal is made uniquely available through a tradition of poetic materialism, thereby allowing the poem to imagine a postrevolutionary moment without taking its eyes off the conditions of production under capital.

Nealon's essay provides a model for thinking about cross-period comparison as an anticapitalist poetics. In "Poem for the Benefit of Me," Mayer expresses her anticapitalism in a direct address to the audience initially, the real audience of a benefit held for Mayer by Steven Hall, as a footnote explains. Thanking attendees for helping her "pass thru the eye / of Capitalism's needle," Mayer reiterates the absurdity of needing "dollar money" to pay for "what / The earth's arranged / We'd have for free."19 As well as a call for communism, these lines are a reference to Hesiod's Works and Days, the ancient Greek poem from which Mayer takes the title of her collection. Works and Days is a didactic poem addressed to Hesiod's idle brother, encouraging him to work hard and be provident. It opens with an etiology of human labor and suffering through the myths of Prometheus, Pandora and the Five Ages, and goes on to give instruction in husbandry and seasonal farming. In particular, "Poem for the Benefit of Me" echoes Hesiod's description of the "golden race" of man "untouched by work or sorrow" to whom "ungrudgingly the fertile land / Gave up her fruits unasked."20 The myth of the golden age is, in A. S. Brown's reading, of structural significance for Hesiod's didacticism: "the association of the first race with divinity (through gold) is what makes clear both that it represents the most ideal conditions of life and that those conditions are unobtainable by the poet's audience."21 It's a hard lesson about nostalgia and a moral directive: work is a metonym for sorrow, a situation to which work is the only available response. In Hesiod's world, there will be no fruits without labor.

Mayer's poem makes its urgent, personal condemnation of capital's immiserations and threads it back through this earlier poetic didacticism. But Mayer doesn't straightforwardly affirm the political valences of this poetic tradition, emphasizing instead its ambivalence. Would a world where everything's free in a word, would communism become obtainable "if / Only enough poets could / Explain how to do it"? Hesiod's tautological scolding, "work the work the gods ordain" and "work with work upon work," suggests another dimension of Mayer's wordplay in 'Soule Sermon':

. . . These are my shoes, but are these my lack of
That is, is my shoelessness mine? . . .
When I go to sleep, is that sleep my sleep? . . .
Alec Baldwin looks a lot like Alec Baldwin.22

In Hesiod, tautology is the poetics of a moral and socio-economic pedagogy premised on a particular relation of the actual to an inaccessible past ideal. Works & Days redirects these energies not into a consciousness-raising didacticism but a paratactic poetics of particulars. Tautology in this light is a clear-eyed attention to the movement of the abstract and concrete, a kind of scrutiny of everyday life experience that for Best constitutes an effective theoretical critique. The dilemmas of reproduction and comparison in these poems intuit for us a sense of something hard to conceptualize: that the very consciousness that the poems reproduce is historically specific to capital's perceptual economy. Throughout Works & Days, incomprehensibility links bafflement and dismay to resistance, to the rejection of work and sorrow. Where Hesiod promises the fruits of our labor, Mayer offers us these tiny eggs:

remember: property is robbery, give everybody
everything, other birds walk this way too23

Fintan Calpin is a doctoral student in the Department of English at King's College London, where he holds a LAHP studentship. He is researching contemporary feminist poetry and Marxian theories. His writing has appeared in SPAM zine, the Dublin Review of Books and elsewhere.


  1. Bernadette Mayer, Works & Days (New York, NY: New Directions Press, 2016), 53.[]
  2. Ibid., 22.[]
  3. Silvia Federici, Wages Against Housework (Bristol: Falling Wall Press, 1975), 2.[]
  4. Ibid., 10.[]
  5. This conception of gender is taken from an essay by the Endnotes Collective, "The Logic of Gender: On the Separation of Spheres and the Process of Abjection," Endnotes, 3 (2013).[]
  6. Kay Gabriel, "Gender as Accumulation Strategy," invert journal, 1 (2020). Gabriel's essay offers an important emendation to Endnotes' formulation of the separation of the spheres by reintroducing the subjective dimension of gender: "In a comradely vein, and sensitive to the clear-eyed realism about the miseries of the present that Endnotes sustains, I object that to synonymise gender with the production of value obviates the subject, or rather the entire subjective scale. Endnotes enables us to grasp capital's instrumentalisation of gender as an accumulation strategy, but makes the critical error I urged against above: comprehending gender as merely epiphenomenal of and accessory to capitalist political economy."[]
  7. See Benjamin Noys, "The Discrete Charm of Bruno Latour," in (Mis)readings of Marx in Continental Philosophy, edited by J. Habjan & J Whyte (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).[]
  8. Ibid., 51.[]
  9. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume One, translated by Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Classics, 1990), 423.[]
  10. Michael Heinrich, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx's Capital, translated by Alexander Locascio (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2012), 78.[]
  11. Ibid., 78.[]
  12. Quoted in Heinrich, 78.[]
  13. As Keston Sutherland writes of Marx's description of human labour in the abstract, "The image of human labor reduced to Gallerte is disgusting." See Keston Sutherland, "Marx in Jargon", world picture, 1 (2008); and Sianne Ngai, "Visceral Abstractions," in Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgement and Capitalist Form (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2020), 174-195.[]
  14. This line of thinking borrows from Ngai's Theory of the Gimmick.[]
  15. Beverley Best, "Distilling a Value Theory of Ideology from Volume Three of Capital", Historical Materialism 23, no. 3 (2015): 101-141, 106, 113-114.[]
  16. Christopher Nealon, "The Price of Value," in The Values of Literary Studies: Critical Institutions, Scholarly Agendas, edited by Rónan McDonald (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press): 91-104, 99.[]
  17. Ibid., 97.[]
  18. Ibid., 103.[]
  19. Ibid., 52.[]
  20. Hesiod, Theogony and Works and Days, translated by Dorothea Wender (London: Penguin Classics, 1973), 62.[]
  21. A. S. Brown, "From the Golden Age to the Isles of the Blest", Mnemosyne 51, no. 4 (1998): 385-410, 397.[]
  22. Ibid., 12-13.[]
  23. Ibid., 6.[]