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Shop Talk: Poems for Shop Workers by Tanner (Penniless Press)

Shop Talk: Poems for Shop Workers by Tanner (Penniless Press)

Since the mid-2000s, Tanner (the ‘Paul’ was dropped in about 2009) has been publishing interesting, distinctive work in The Crazy Oik, Monkey Kettle, Penniless Press, Pulsar, The Recusant and elsewhere, as well as satirical cartoons and a novel. The earlier collections include graphics and prose heavy on bodily fluids and youthful opinion, but among them are poems that shine in their energy, wit and fast-paced depictions of bus-stop-level life ‘in the autumn of our country’ in Birkenhead and Preston. This latest collection has identified the strongest stuff and honed it well. The settings are a series of supermarkets and minimarkets, and the perspective is of a low-paid shelf-stacker/ till-attendant. The management are a pain,

they’d keep you behind, unpaid
for 15 minutes a night
just because they could,

but the customers are far worse. They queue-jump, moan, spit, make personal comments, demand unreasonable discounts or refunds, and are consistently abusive and occasionally violent. Their kids, meanwhile, trash the store. The shopworker gets riled, and can’t resist reacting with demurral, wisecracks or mere candour, and after comic and sometimes hair-raising escalations, ends up being warned, sacked or even assaulted ‒ or simply walks out. The pattern repeats with variations in the manner of a comic-strip or sitcom series: he’s back on the dole, then into another dead-end job, and up comes another snotty punter… The poems themselves set up each drama and conflict fast. Their line-breaks and cadences are functionally perfect. They zip along, low on pretension, fuss and adjective count:

She told me
her and her daughter
were going to wait outside the shop
after closing
and stab me

she even showed me the knife:

More impressive still, they build cumulatively into a disquieting picture of what post-community consumerism is doing to our sense of decent behaviour. Tanner’s particular focus is what it does to the poorest, who can treat shopworkers as one of the few groups they can successfully bully. And how, in turn, the resentment of such workers towards the non-working plays into the hands of the Right. Tanner’s character isn’t going to join a union, take up an Open University course, turn to crime or even go into a different line of work. Shop experience is all he has – along with (less commonly) the compensation of writing:

I could have told him
he was going the right way about
ending up in a poem

and the possibility of even that let-out veering, via the Orwellian, towards the traditions of Knut Hamsun and Céline. (The last poem, consolingly, does suggest a nascent solidarity.) At any rate, with both narrator and creator now well into their thirties, the comedy, I imagine, will continue getting wryer and bleaker:

they tell me
none of us is immortal
but sometimes working in retail
feels life-threateningly close to it.

The book’s back cover quotes fake reviewers carping about it in the same petulant, bad-tempered manner as the supermarket shoppers. Not this one, though: who thinks it’s a fresh, original, eye-opening and powerfully written collection; who’s a very happy customer.

Guy Russell 6th July 2020

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