HANNAH METTNER

Beep test

At school, the worst class was PE—
our twice-weekly lesson in sunburn
and body shame. And the worst part of PE
was the beep test. Our smirking teacher
would line us up against the wall of the gym
then she’d saunter back to the bleachers
and the old tape player. When it beeped, we ran.
The aim was to get to the opposite end
of the gym before the next beep.
We’d start slow, ambling as a group over
the scuffed outlines of a netball court, but the
beeps kept coming, faster and faster. Us slow
girls would drop out early, pink and breathing
hard and feeling stupid for even trying to keep up.
Soon the sporty girls and the competitive girls
would be sprinting back and forth so fast they’d
slam into the walls at either end. So fast
they’d warp the space-time continuum.
Every now and again a girl would fall from the
thicket, clutching a broken toe, bursting out
in bruises, but the beeps would keep coming.
And the girls, they would just keep running.

[BEEP]

Having a good job means our parents
can measure us against the kids we grew
up with and feel smug that they did a good job
raising us, patting us back into their wallets
like a big wad of cash saved up for later.
Having a good job is having an answer when
someone asks you what you do—every friend
of a friend you meet for the first time at the bar
before the gig, every date you meet after work.
But I don’t want any of that—the carefully curated
LinkedIn page, the business card with my name
on it, the work phone with the sound always on—
the promotion. I just want some time to think
about things I’m not being paid to think.
I want to spend an entire week pulling weeds
from my garden and planting vegetables in their place.
The sun dropping freckles on my shoulders.
An entire year where I don’t have to be somewhere
at a certain time and no one is scheduling
another team-bonding exercise over lunch.

[BEEP]

I wish I could slough off my workday as easily
as make-up sweating from my face into the neck
of another dress with pockets. If I don’t walk
home, I don’t exercise—I go from sitting
at my desk, to sitting on the bus, to sitting
on my couch, noticing that no one on TV ever
watches TV. Waves of heat and brand fragrance
pour from the shops on Lambton Quay.
This is the modern version of running the gauntlet—
resisting the basic human urge to step into light
and warmth. What I don’t need, this is the stuff
that gets me—a pair of sparkly shoes, a hair clip
shaped like an octopus, the heady gush of dopamine
as I lay my little card on the machine and it dings.
A reward, I tell myself, for another day. But we all know
there is no way to satisfy an addiction to a system
designed to entrap us. No matter how fast I run
I can never get away.

[BEEP]

In my performance and development meeting
I admit to my manager that I have no ambition.
I admit that I have no interest in being developed—
that I just want to do my job and go home.
My manager leans in and says she’ll let me in
on a little secret. That’s what the performance
part of all this is, she says. It’s not enough to do
the job, I have to look like I enjoy doing the job
and want to keep doing it, better every year.
The performance of being a professional.
She suggests I think of my work self as an alter ago—
but my alter ego is a power dresser who has slept
her way to the top and enjoys long, boozy lunches.
My manager asks where I see myself a year from
now and I say can I think about it and come back
to her, but I know I will not.

[BEEP]

I apply for a new role at my current workplace which
I know I could do easily. The hiring manager calls
to let me know I was a close second, but that I didn’t
get the job because I lack confidence. They give the job
to a straight white man who leaves after a month
and when the job is re-advertised I don’t reapply—
mostly out of spite. I don’t believe that confidence
can be learned, but that’s only because I’ve been trying
for twenty years and I still haven’t got the knack.
There are cracks in my resumé as large as a lifetime—
and no one wants to hear about motherhood
as a transferable skill. I attend a well-being seminar
on resilience, and I take note of the other mothers
in the room. We have lived through worse than this.

[BEEP]

Mum comes to visit, and we argue about the capital
gains tax in the car from the airport. It’s not that we’ve
run out of things to fight about, we just pick the most
topical. Like most people her age, she thinks that they
worked harder for their money back in the day. Of course
she’s also tricked me into taking leave to pick her up
because she can’t figure out the bus. She’s bought
the cheapest flights, right on rush hour, and we are stuck.
On goes the radio to turn off our fight, and someone
is in the middle of saying, Women are subsidising
the capitalist economy with their unpaid labour, and
for once we are both speechless with agreement.

[BEEP]

Mostly I’m dire with memory of a childhood
when the solemn tune of Mr Whippy seemed
to bring with it a memory from a past life
in a cold-river country where I learned to sing
in another language. But that was only yesterday, or
last week, when I skinned my knees falling from my
orange pogo stick. Summers went on so long our hair
turned green from the school pool and matted from the sea.
We were creatures out of time and I don’t know
when I’ll have that luxury again.

[BEEP]

What if there was time for each friend’s face, glowing
with warm recognition as we meet in the lilac evening—
discussing where to go for dinner, who has the best
desserts, who the vegan wine list, what we feel like. What if
we had time to look up, to ride the weather, to play
with our children and to call our sisters for a proper talk
for once. What would happen if I stopped running from thing
to thing and walked for a moment, directionless.

author photo Hannah Mettner

Hannah Mettner is a Wellington-based poet from Tūranganui-a-Kiwa. Her poems have appeared widely in literary journals, including Sport, Turbine | Kapohau, and Cordite. In 2014, with Morgan Bach and Sugar Magnolia Wilson, she co-founded Sweet Mammalian, an online poetry journal. 

Her first collection, Fully Clothed and So Forgetful (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2017), won the 2018 Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry. 'Beep test' was published in her second collection, Saga (THWUP, 2023). 

Hannah comments: ‘I’m so glad "Beep test" was chosen for BNZP; it’s a poem that I think of as central to my collection, Saga, and I spent years working on it. The poem started up in my brain following a conversation in which someone said to me, "Life is just work, eat, sleep, repeat, amirite?" For some reason, this exhausting back-and-forth dash triggered a memory of the dreaded beep test, and, of course, Marx’s laws of motion. 

‘I didn’t want this to be a ranty, didactic poem; the main thing I was trying to achieve was really to illustrate how the capitalist system operates on a day-to-day, individual level. I think we hear a lot about "the economy" in general terms, and so much is taken for granted around who has the capital, generational wealth, what work is valued, and how it all impacts the world we live in, that we forget that we have the right to beautiful fulfilling lives where we mean more than just the product we generate.  

‘Like the beep test, the stanzas get shorter and shorter as the poem goes on. It was a hard poem to finish because I have no solution to the problem I set up: I’m a proud labour unionist and I also love to buy a little treat. I’m not exempt. For me, the ending is about "working" on relationships and "spending" time with people you love, if that doesn’t sound too cringe.’ 

 

​Poem source details >

 

Links

Hannah Mettner's Te Herenga Waka University Press author page

 

Photographer credit: Ebony Lamb