Underneath

Martin Hayes’ third Smokestack collection is a hymn to the invisible workers everywhere who hold up the sky – specifically the couriers and support staff who have been working 15-hours a day to distribute PPE and test kits up and down the UK.

Underneath is a brutally funny collection about work, comradeship and community, the deals we do to stay human in the dehumanising conditions of the twenty-first century, the years we exchange for a fridge full of food, a well-stocked medicine cabinet and the chance to swim in the sea once a year. It’s a book about work-mates and neighbours, warnings and redundancies, managers with their ‘Moray eel smiles’ and the alien rich who think that the world belongs to them. Martin Hayes gives a voice to everyone at the bottom of the pile, below the salt, underneath, defiantly asserting that we are not defeated – at least not just yet. 

Author photo: Victoria Hayes

Sample Poems

they want all of our teeth to be theirs

they want from us total commitment
they want from us our blood and our hunger
they want our flesh
inked with the company’s logo on our chest
they want our knuckles to our brains
and all the nerve-ends in between
switched off
they want our sinews and our muscles
sewn together with steal thread
so that we can only move
when they pull their levers
they want all of our teeth to be theirs
so that we can only chew when they chew
ache when they ache
they want us to show them where we keep our guts
so that they can sneak in under the radar
and pull them apart
angry thread by angry thread
until nothing is held
or stitched together anymore

they want us like robots
sat at our workstations every day
not wanting or able to think
of anything other than what their viruses have burrowed into us
and malfunctioned us to think

and what do we want?

we want to be able to walk through the park on a Saturday
afternoon
without feeling anxious
we want to be able to lay out on the grass
drinking ice cold beer
while looking up into the sky
without worrying about office politics
we want to swim in the ocean once a year
and know how we are going to pay for it
we want a mouth full of teeth
that we know we can afford to get fixed
or capped
if ever they should go rotten
we want to be able to enjoy the laughter and song
that comes from having food in the fridge the electricity bill paid
a car taxed and full of diesel
a medicine cabinet full of floss sticks and Sudocrem
paracetamol and hand cream
Bonjela hair bands
Diazepam and Anusol

we want to be able to live in our block
without the threat of being redistributed
hanging like thick drool dripping from a councillor’s panting
mouth
because an entrepreneur took him for a £500 dinner
and promised him a place for his kid in the prep school
that will take our council flats’ place
alongside the £65-a-month gym business units
and 1.5 million-pound lofts

we want to feel
be able to say to ourselves
that we are human
and not have to give everything of that away
just so we are allowed to work
just so we are allowed
to exist

5am early-shift tube ride in

who are these men
with sleepy nests for heads
all wearing the same clothes same
looks on their faces
like something deep down inside them
has cracked

who are these men
holding on
without a skip in their step
hearts mustering an if-you-must pump
spilling just enough blood over its edge
to keep their vast network of veins
and bones and muscle
moving

who are these men
with cracks in their glasses
slumped in their seats
hushed spines sinking into the day’s mud
crawling out from under Orgreave’s car crash
unable to work out if they have survived
or this is that death

who are these men
in the early morning emptiness
of this vacant lot tube
broken up into millions of pieces
carrying buckets plasterer’s poles
De Walt bags drills
hard-hats clipped to rucksacks
or else dangling from forearms
they’ve got no time or energy
to harm

who are these men
speechless now as worms
bright as flamingos
emptied out into luminous orange suits
SKANSKA – KIER GROUP – GALLIFORD –
BALFOUR BEATTY – MACE –
marked plumage of high-vis vests
marching out onto the salt-flats
to eat
honest as a crow on a slag heap
looking for any old protein or fats
to feed their brood’s with
to stuff their nests with
to live on

who are these voiceless men
whose people
are they
our people

hearts bigger than the sun

Chaplin had it
Keaton had it
and Laurel and Hardy had it

Lucas has it
as he walks in early for work
with a flask and tupperware box full of sandwiches under his
arm
with ‘mornings’ and ‘alright mates’
spilling out of him like birdsong
before he sits down at his workstation
spreading it out across the whole room

Javed has it
as he dances across the control room floor
turning and spinning like he’s in his favourite Bollywood
movie
tapping colleagues on the shoulder
before leaning down next to them and peering at them with
bulging eyes
doing that thing with his head
from side to side
while wagging a finger at them
before spinning off again
to make himself a cup of tea

Ashley has it
as she sits at her phone station
every now and then letting that laugh of hers boom out into
the air
dirty and gravely as a dockers
that burrows in through our ears
so that it swims in and around our muscles and our veins and
our stomachs
warming up our entire systems

Antoine has it
as he sits at his workstation
carrying on imaginary conversations with controllers
while it’s roaring busy and the phones constantly ringing
about how he thinks us controllers haven’t had sex in months
or proper kissed a girl since we were teenagers
things totally unrelated to work
that dissipates all of the pressure
and makes you feel
like you’re in a school playground once again
rather than in a control room
trying to protect your job

they are the only things they’ve got left
that they haven’t been able to take away from them yet
that despite their snide comments and threats
the traps they set
for them to fall over
in the 3rd year of a pay freeze
with the purchase of the CEO’s shiny new Bentley
sitting outside in the yard
hasn’t broken them yet

these hearts of theirs
bigger than the sun
spreading their heat and light out
pulling everyone up by the scruffs of their necks
this magical spirit of theirs
that keeps on pumping keeps on
laughing its magic out
even when everything else around us seems to be falling apart
designed
to try and make us give up

Kevin didn’t come back

from his HR meeting
he just exited right
out of the door
must’ve felt desolated
because he left one of his ear pods
and all of his protein drink powder sachets
at his workstation

he’ll be out there now
on his own
wondering what to do next
where he goes from here

it is an ugly site
the loneliness
after losing your job
the sky doesn’t look so beautiful
the trees don’t look so amazing
walking is hard
smiling is hard
breathing
and the hour before bed
not knowing whether you’re going to sleep or not
is the hardest

it is the next step
that is always the most terrifying

maybe
I am fussing over nothing
maybe the mum has forgiven him
taken him back in
delaying his final steps
over the bridge
crossing the ravine
under where that river runs

maybe
this poem is pointless
that they are both now sat on the couch
watching family videos together
on the new tele he’s bought her
with his last bit of cash

I hope so

we need payslips

we work to make it turn into food
to make it turn into heat and electricity that keeps our families
warm and happy we work
for the council tax the rent the laughter and song
we work like Standing Bear worked we all work
for the hill in the mists at the back of our minds that we were
brought up on
the land where we once ran free
alongside our buffalo alongside our canal our dogs
the city rat knows this
and the turtle in the sea knows it
we all work to make our skirting-board Empires happen
as Elon Musk colonises space and all the stars are bought
by money

while our Empires
spread themselves out to just the next Saturday afternoon
sat outside pubs in parks drinking up the sun
waving a payslip about in our hands with laughter in our
throats
a payslip that will pay for the ice creams the cake the coffees
the beers and wine that make it all just about bearable
a payslip that wherever you are
stretches the whole route back to work
building you making you the strength of rivets that hold
together ships
that won’t fall apart in the middle of the ocean
payslips that are the jaws of a leopard
that can drag its prey up into a tree and eat peacefully for a
week
payslips made by hours spent tapping away at buttons
ignoring the snide comments of supervisors
turning our cheeks and dignity towards the sun
and what those payslips will bring us
payslips that make things happen
payslips that keep our hearts intact and stuck together

fuck the dignity of labour
we need payslips
we need food and wine on the table
we need heat in the water that comes out of our taps
we need cigarettes to smoke internet connections floss sticks
toothpaste E45 and hair clips
we need washing up liquid hoover-bags and batteries
we need light bulbs socks and scissors to cut the gaffer tape
that keep our remote controls together
we need beds
beds we can fuck in beds we can sleep in
beds we can sweat in and beds we can die in
we need
TO EXIST!
under a roof
that only our payslips can provide

Underneath

God will not save us we are from Underneath
His hands have been turned to shape a different valley
silicon greenbacks and the wise selling us short before
dumping us
Underneath it has always been the same
always only one last chance
always only the love or the drugs
the music or the poems
Instagram or Netflix
uppers or downers
glory or depression
all somehow enough to get us through
stop us from rising
keep us tied to this council flat stump

intricate plans of escape get formed but their fruition evades us
we are from Underneath
we have clods for brains
we knock them about in silly postcode wars
toughing it out for our skin-colour
our infiltrated memories and weekend allegiances
our avatars reflected back into the world
more important than the hands we used to hold they say
all of it foam atop of the sea
Underneath our broken bones and torn-out tongues thread
the cement of their structures to keep them sturdy
nothing changes Underneath
only sometimes the flags move about in the air a bit fiercer
and the songs get sung from a different mouth
than the one we all used to share
before we break bread
let me tell you what’s said
about those from Underneath
they are bereft of intellect
blind to the craft
they don’t know a consonant from a vowel
every scattering of letters ends up in the word CUNT
I’ll leave it up to you to decide
what the fuck they mean by that!

they move Underneath they do
so the Media say
like witches gathered around a cauldron
always got a scam going on always an angle
but it’s never as clean and simple as it seems
Underneath
single mothers have to be like Hyenas
with their teeth bared
ready to snap and pull at any meat they can

we weren’t imprisoned
no one was trying to put a noose around our necks
we didn’t have to be in doors by 9 o’clock
football had been taken away from us on the terraces
but we could still sit in any seat on the bus
and we were right royally compensated
with free music and cheap films pumped into our rooms 24/7
it was easy living
sometimes we couldn’t even work out if we lived Underneath or not
and that’s when we started to lose our voice

sometimes
you couldn’t even put two bits of bread together
to make them a sandwich
sometimes you couldn’t put a chicken wing on the table
but you told them
as though it was something to be proud of
that they were from Underneath
through wine-glistening eyes

it was getting closer to Christmas
I needed the money
so I got me mum to set up a meeting with the Provi man
so that I could lend a bag of sand
we sat on the stairs of her flat
he got me to sign his tablet
then handed me over the cash
Christmas is easy Underneath
it’s the rest of the year that’s hard

they keep offering it you
email after email text after text
you know it’s wrong to respond
the lovely lady would be enraged
but there’s this lust in you that wants it
needs that hit of what it’s like to feel free again
so you do it
have a great couple of weeks buying Comte and avocados
getting her hair cut and drinking better wine
Underneath debt is worse than infidelity
you can run away from one but the other one
it will follow you around forever
it’s not to be made light of
it can destroy some families
constantly Underneath it can
it starts with an individual first
they go rotten and once that rot sets in
everything else starts to fall apart
crumbles disintegrates
bruises start to appear first
then a tooth or two goes missing
but there are always those who are constantly crackerjacking
always trying to carve a laugh out of thin air
their constant smiles and cynical look-what-they’ve-fucking-
done-to-us-now humour
soothes the helpless pain
brings sunshine when there’s only rain
and their indomitable spirits
can sometimes make you feel
that you’re never gonna have to give up again

if you didn’t know it already
you learn that you are from Underneath
when you go for that promotion
when you are told by the Directors
that though your 30 years of experience is important
they have decided to give it to somebody else
a clone who hasn’t spent one minute inside a control room
but who’s wardrobe and performance
was better than mine

you can tell us what you want
we know what we know
you can shout at us and scream at us
we’ll have trouble hearing you up there
you can spit on us and piss on us
we have resolved to carry on
you can even shit on us
we’ll sweep such mess away
you can tell us what you want
we know what we know

Underneath it has always been the same

Reviews

‘This is poetry like virtually no-one else in Britain is writing. It is funny, wise, sad, tragic and thoroughly memorable.’

Mistress Quickly’s Bed

‘Martin Hayes is speaking about matters too often ignored in today’s literature. A working man himself, Hayes writes brave poetry that sheds a unique light on the work world where most of us spend most of our waking hours. A very necessary, powerful voice in this era of austerity, inequality and exploitation.’

Fred Voss

‘I can’t think of any other British poet with this degree of obsessive focus and the result is claustrophobic, intense and unrelenting... More power to his pen.’

Steve Spence, Stride

‘No poet writes so well as Martin Hayes about the conditions of work in the twenty-first century, its frustrations and absurdities, as well as its consolations.’

Morning Star

‘a real roar of anger, resignation and fortitude from workers on the frontline of austerity Britain… We need poets like Hayes now more than ever… Important reading.’

Andrew McMillan