At some stage, we all claim to have reached the end of our line. That point where the buck stops, or our tether runs out; maybe both of these at the same moment. For most of us the term is figurative, the line an imagined one. Not so for Joseph Ponthus, whose extraordinary verse novel On the Line (Black Inc., translated by Stephanie Smee) charts his experience of working on the agribusiness factory lines in Brittany, France.
A social worker by training but unable to find employment in this area, Ponthus signs up to a temp agency, and the novel opens with him working in a fish processing plant. The work is dull and repetitive, but makes for exhilarating reading: Ponthus’s meticulous detailing of factory labour results in a hypnotic opening up of attention, as he deals with “Machine after machine / Where the prawns are / Defrosted / Sorted / Cooked / Refrigerated / Re-sorted / Packaged / Labelled / Re-re-sorted”. It’s the kind of labour that leaves him feeling “barely human”. To deal with the physical grind, Ponthus finds solace through his inner life. His mind wanders “alone, determined”, holding fast to the knowledge that “The only true freedom is within”. He takes comfort in thoughts of his dog, his beloved wife, his mother, the writers whom he adores.
When the fish work runs out, Ponthus moves on to an abattoir, where the situation is grim. He spends his days cleaning blood and shit, and pushing carcasses – a Sisyphean labour of “an eternal round of cows to be broken down”. The effects on his body are ruinous, and in his suffering Ponthus questions the situation: “I’m only / Earning a living / No / Earning a few bucks / No /Selling my labour” … “My life no less / It all weighs so heavily”. He belongs to Marx’s “reserve army”, the contemporary precariat, and the novel unpacks the vulnerability of this condition with great force. In the process, the factory becomes the site of Ponthus’s self-analysis: “The factory is a couch”.
The factory breaks his back, but it also erodes him in other ways, distorting his sense of time. In the face of perpetual repetition, time both passes and doesn’t pass. His life seems unreal. The line is endless, “At the point when I can’t go on / I work”.
The magnificence of this novel derives in part from the marriage of form and content, with the verse line evoking a literal manifestation of this experience. The irony of Ponthus’s poetic line is that it finds its power in how it ends, with each line culminating with a subtle pause, a resistance, a beast tugging on the bit, only to capitulate and carry on. The stress falls not at the line’s end but at the point of each line’s recommencement. In both the verse line and the factory line, time is ongoing, exhausting, a vast force experienced in endless increments. On the Line is marked by a heady admixture of brutality and tenderness, elevated throughout by Ponthus’s philosophical hunger and gratitude for common life. The magnitude of Ponthus’s achievement is made all the more moving by the fact of his premature death, at the age of 42, just before the release of this English translation of his work.
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