Alex Gallo-Brown’s new collection of poems and stories, Variations of Labor, illustrated with original artwork by Devon Hale, positions him as a rare poet of the working class — whose experience he knows from his jobs in the homecare and food service industries, and whose interests he champions in his current career as a labor organizer. Written over the past ten years, these pieces are populated by “service workers” in the traditional sense — but don’t be fooled by this straightforward embodiment of the collection’s main theme: at the heart of this volume are all the forms of labor you can’t list on your resumé, that you won’t be compensated for, that will go unremarked by your loved ones and friends, and that you might not even realize you have performed.
In acute, economical poetry and prose, Gallo-Brown rescues his theme from the dull realism and gender stereotypes to which labor-related artworks in all mediums usually cling. Instead, he exposes the immeasurable, unacknowledged forms of labor through which we produce and reproduce our social fabric in the briefest encounter with another human being. The emotional labor performed in the book is made necessary by the very capitalist system that alienates us from our bodies and emotions. Yet Gallo-Brown re-humanizes the examples of empathy and care he features (e.g. empathy with an abusive boss) even while acknowledging how broken they are.
The hidden figure throughout these texts, no less timely than labor, is American masculinity. But Gallo-Brown sets this theme off balance too. He questions whether masculinity is altogether toxic. Even masculine fragility, he shows, may contain the remnants of a vulnerability that our society urgently needs to salvage and rehabilitate for men.
The title poem opens the collection with a gender reversal that announces the themes of masculinity and emotional labor performed at the body’s expense. A male narrator and his wife attend a birthing class, where she prepares for a form of physical labor that is indisputably female, while he performs the emotional labor required of male partners during pregnancy and birth. The words of a medical worker recall the narrator’s memory of an early job that cast him in a similarly “feminine” role: caring for a woman with cerebral palsy. But the poem’s telescoping of care and dependence doesn’t rest here.
The woman with cerebral palsy herself performs an even greater, more socially invisible, less compensated form of labor than that performed by the narrator as a young homecare worker for minimum wage. She empathizes, as he recalls, with “the contempt felt / by other caregivers / for people left / in their charge.” Her compliment is so gracefully indirect that it might go unnoticed by anyone but this narrator (“the contempt felt by other caregivers”). She conveys her gratitude for his forbearance and implicitly exempts him from the additional labor of concealing the frustration and disgust he hasn’t shown. This strikes at a terrible truth: to be human in the sense of being well-socialized and ready to empathize with loved ones and strangers alike requires us to view ourselves without compassion.
What does it mean to empathize with those who are angry? Who are unreceptive to us? Who have contempt for the finitude of our bodies or our perspectives? It is easy to empathize with the feelings of people who appreciate us and share our point of view. But the woman with cerebral palsy who can “understand / the contempt felt” for her provides the narrator with a model of the radical empathy that generates the pieces in this collection — and which it requires of readers. The fact that the emotional and creative engine of the volume is provided by a differently abled woman who is older than the narrator in his early “work memory” emblematizes Gallo-Brown’s re-gendering of labor.
I emphasize the centrality of empathy in this collection because — although the stereotypically narrow emotional repertoire of American men features heavily in these pages: fear, shame, disappointment, and anger — it is the empathy of the various narrators with other people's hostile and wounded feelings that guides the work. In a later poem called “Another Way of Saying Fear,” a narrator who sees an angry man shouting at a T.V. screen while watching football in a bar confesses: “I wanted to do to him / what I do to you at home: / wrap him up, tell him everything / was going to be alright.” The narrator wants to contain and comfort this screaming “suburban” man behind whose anger he rightly suspects fear. Yet the hostility implied in his words “I wanted to do to him” only partially resolves in the imagined embrace. We picture this speaker ingesting but not fully metabolizing the other man’s rage. There is violence in this empathy — towards the other and towards the self — and a great deal of unrecognized labor.
The interpersonal examples of empathy with which Gallo-Brown begins gradually map onto internalized classism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, etc. In the poem “I Was a Worker,” a working-class narrator empathizes with the concerns of his boss (“my master”) in two lines that could be a perfect stand-alone poem: “Only once was I asked to sacrifice / the fingers of my left hand.” The fingers, perhaps, were merely cut; yet the line supports a stronger reading. If a body part could be sacrificed more than once, we understand, this worker would be asked to sacrifice his fingers again and again. Nonetheless, he interprets his loss in a way that is infinitely generous toward his boss and the labor system that issues this grotesque demand.
The quasi-religious “sacrifice” of fingers is both escalated and negated when the narrator cancels its meaningfulness in the poem's closing lines: “I kept my gaze / on the task / in front of me. / I waited for / my shift / to end.” The worker’s sacrifice is finalized not when the Capitalist God has been appeased, but when the clock strikes five or the worker has no fingers left to give.
If this sounds like difficult material, don’t worry: Gallo-Brown’s writing will also make you laugh. Some poem titles function as one-liners — like this one, with its slightly altered syntax to serve the tasty punch line right: “To the North Seattle NIMBY with Whom Last Week I Shared Garlic Prawns.” Or this one: “To the Woman Who Thought That I Was Barstaff at My Brother’s Engagement Party” — the opening line of which balances irony and empathy in a superior use of rhetoric: “I, too, mistake myself for a bartender / from time to time.” There’s a complete, sophisticated politics hidden in this brief line by a narrator who “understands” the woman’s mistake and gently tries to make her laugh (another form of uncompensated labor) while calling her out. Her laughter, though, would be a form of labor too, as we learn from a perfectly balanced little poem about Gallo-Brown’s uncle, called “The Laugh.” Every emotion swallowed or voiced, every act of listening, every struggle to find words, every smile, every gaze returned in this world is a form of labor.
Readers of this book can expect to be gently called out and called upon to do more work too. In a story titled “The Job at the Technology Company Café,” although a character named Andrew performs an act of minor disobedience, readers may be left sitting with the timidity and vagueness of his earlier declaration — a thought every one of us has had so often that even its shameful idleness has become routine: “We should do something” — words that hope for, without threatening, revolution.
Why don’t we take political action to address poor labor conditions and economic inequality if we know we “should”? Political apathy in Variations of Labor is a symptom of systematic disenfranchisement. It also has something to do with a physical passivity that results from the disregard and stigmatization of the body under capitalism. We might think of how the homecare worker’s body and that of the male partner in childbirth are eclipsed by the needs of other bodies. Or we might think of the atrophied bodies of office workers hunched over computers while their most basic needs for sustenance and sleep are quarantined and timed.
The emotional labor we perform unconsciously to ease the friction of social life forces us to ignore the body’s distress signals, from anxiety to fatigue to headaches to sore feet (no wonder these bodies are largely invisible). The many forms of emotional labor Gallo-Brown explores are those we become aware of only when someone refuses or fails to perform them. Even love and friendship are first grasped in the negative. The main character of a story called “Friend” understands what he has lost only after the death of a man he calls “[my] friend” in the story’s closing lines — but his belated revelation, which he never speaks aloud, arrives only after he announces it in the negative to his late friend’s wife: “you weren’t my friend.”
Just as capitalism alienates us from our bodies, it denatures our emotions. “It doesn’t feel like fear,” the narrator of “In Starbucks on my Thirty” observes, “when I’m at work.” Nonetheless, the body in Variations of Labor always resurfaces as a site of animal pain: the worker with a cut finger, or another with “ankles that swell / and a stomach that burns.” As vulnerable bodies, we can’t not sympathize with the chicken carcasses this worker “break[s] down” in the back of a supermarket.
If only the whole field of political theory were a poem. Gallo-Brown tells the story of most young American lives: an interminable series of “entry-level” jobs worked for virtually stagnant wages despite enormous gains in education, skills, emotional maturity, and life experience. You would expect this book to be autobiographical, social, and political — and it is. But I hope you will linger over Variations of Labor, with its musical variations on one of the most important themes of our day, and let yourself be moved and challenged by its literary, psychological, and philosophical dimensions.
Naomi Beeman is an arts nonprofit fundraiser, freelance writer, and former Comparative Literature professor. She has published on European literature, philosophy, psychoanalysis, visual art, and film in Modern Language Notes, Monatshefte, Short Film Studies, and Journal of the Kafka Society of America (forthcoming).