It’s thirty years since I worked in the factory but there are still calluses on my palms, there’s filth beneath my nails, and there’s hot steel barely bending in the bottom of my lungs. I breathe like a machine for making precisely wrong decisions, piece by identical piece, with sharp-edged days rolling off the endless line, straight into the crusher. I dream standing up of clock cards and coveralls, my skin stinging with white hot swarf, my repeat-repeat-repeated robot gestures as simple as a quick tabloid crossword. I heard the factory shut, or burned down, or was just abandoned to weeds and skunk-smoking kids who, once upon a time, would have worked there but now have no option but to grow slowly old in the shadows of its inscrutable machines. I have welded my spine rigid, one vertebra at a time, and every morning I plunge my hands into boiling water, just so I can feel something. There are sparks behind my eyelids and all I can see is a press coming down.
Pity the human, its humdrum existence with its ho-hum insistence on gravity, furniture, and adherence to species integrity. In 200,000 years of naming stars, they have always insisted on clinging to the ground, that down is nature’s resting state, and that slate kitchen worktops are a passing fad which, though fleeting, will return like a short-period comet slung around the Sun. Beyond a certain point, comfort is subordinate to cost, and floors are filled with statement pieces – say, a sofa/settee/couch – with no expectations other than to be weighed upon at 9.80665 m/s2, give or take slight variations attributable to precise location and fluctuations in intensity of concomitant episodic actions. For example, in spite of metonymy and negotiable conceptual fluidity, the human remains distinct from furniture, and while both are subject to gravity, passion may be as mechanically enacted upon a kitchen worktop as a sofa/settee/couch, or even a floor. Truth to tell, stars don’t have names, furniture is furniture, human is little but an accident of language and, beyond a certain distance, cause and effect is nothing but petty retribution.
Between the statues, space is solid, adopting the shape of absence, and we move as if by osmosis between curves and angles, theatrical faces and imploring hands. Myth is background noise – a foreign radio station bleeding between the chart rundown and traffic updates, the Morse code of tired central heating – and we listen like spies who don’t believe the Cold War’s over. We take photographs to remind ourselves of where our bodies start and end, and share them on defunct platforms to prove we were once alive; because we have always been ghosts, or archetypes, or statues, or anomalies of light under experimental conditions. We move like a slow pulse at the far end of a hospital corridor, or like water through a million years of sculpted limestone. One day we’ll arrive in the gift shop, purified. There will be souvenir pencils. There will be poorly translated guidebooks. There will be postcards of things we didn’t see.
Oz Hardwick is a European poet, photographer, occasional musician, and accidental academic, whose work has been widely published in international journals and anthologies. He has published “about a dozen” full collections and chapbooks, including Learning to Have Lost (IPSI, 2018), which won the 2019 Rubery International Book Award for poetry, and, most recently, A Census of Preconceptions (SurVision Books, 2022). Oz is professor of creative writing at Leeds Trinity University. www.ozhardwick.co.uk