On The Line by Joseph Ponthus

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

To read this book is an unforgettable experience. The cover, depicting five blue fish side by side, is eye-catching in its beautiful simplicity, belying the ugly reality within.

It initially has an almost laconic air but transforms quickly to anger, protest, near despair at the lack of communication and confusion as to how to endure the soulless work.

Joseph Ponthus, formerly a teacher then social worker, is unemployed. To survive financially, he registered with a Temp Agency in Brittany. He accepts a job in a seafood processing factory, and there, the monotony, exhaustion and mind-numbing hours steal six days of his week.  Prawns, crab, scampi – but it is whelks he finds particularly revolting. He sustains the determination to continue working there by knowing that a wage will be his at week’s end.

Weeks later, the world of whelks is supplanted with another casual job working in an abattoir.  Ponthus describes his feelings and thoughts in dealing with the slaughtered pigs and cows with a sensitivity and depth that make a reader become a vegetarian.  Yet, he ironically confesses, after weeks working in this version of a war zone drenched in smells and blood, he still enjoys a steak.

As a poet, he graphically recalls WW1, “The Great Butchery” with beautifully evocative lines. The tragic Thierry Metz’s poetry, especially resonates for him.  Ronsard’s phrase, Le Grand Tout, that is for Ponthus, the factory, encapsulates the crushing effect of the seeming endless shifts which devour his days.  ‘Moments so unspeakable you don’t have time to sing’ is a line that only a poet as gifted as he, could envisage.

‘Broken gargoyles’ are workers on the assembly line’s faces.

Time so fleet of foot slips by without a trace.

Yet his horror is not unrelieved.  At the end of his day, waiting eagerly at home, is Pok Pok, his devoted puppy. His daily walk by the sea with his dog is a joy and serves to maintain an emotional and mental stability.

Time rules his life and is a visceral part of the poem’s fabric. It dictates production line speed, hours worked, hours spent in freedom.  He knows:

The factory

Above all else is a relationship with time

Time that passes

Time that doesn’t pass

So extreme is its impact on Joseph that he has ‘forgotten how to sleep’, a kind of torture.

With wry humour he prays to St Marx, patron saint of the Capitalist system that devours the lives of factory workers.  He reminds us of the 1949 documentary ‘Blood of the Beasts’, horrifying in its authenticity, and he indicates that little has changed for man or beast. Just electric saws and PPE.

On The Line is written unpunctuated, except by the uneven lines, sometimes containing a single word. This gives a power and emphasis to his thoughts, a means to save his sanity.

They range from dwelling on a series of writers and poets, and singers, especially Trenet, to his wife, mother and fellow workers (one hops around like a mad flea) and his previous life. All drift into his consciousness.

The brilliance of Becket’s ‘Godot’ gains more relevance for him as he battles to maintain a kind of equilibrium.

This extraordinary poem is very personal, and striking in its freedom of thought yet brilliant in its mastery of language. He has employed a stream of consciousness that perfectly creates the terrible life on the factory production lines.

To a man of his sensibilities, it is not surprising that even mundane housework is embraced as a balance to his working week.

No wonder that this elegant and yet disturbing poem has been hailed as a literary sensation in France, almost universally attracting the highest praise. Rare to have a lengthy poem in the best seller list….

This English translation by Stephanie Smee is a fine piece of work. She is noted for her excellent skill in this regard and because of this, we are fortunate to have the opportunity to read On the Line as a superb example of contemporary French poetry.

Most people rely on processed food in one form or another. To be aware of the cost to workers in these conditions is not a comfortable exercise. Physical, mental and emotional, the effects vary but cannot be skimmed over or dismissed.  Joseph Ponthus has elevated the trials of manual labour with an impressive elegance of style, its simplicity making it a powerful evocation of the subject.

The last lines in this grand epic read:

There will never be


Final Full Stop

On the line

On The Line


by Joseph Ponthus [trans. from the French by Stephanie Smee]

Black Inc Books

ISBN 978 17606 4233 4

$27.99; 272pp


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