Poetry turnst(y)le: The Meatworks by Robert Gray

Robert Gray is one of my much loved Australian poets. His poetry has always made me want to ride a train through rural Australia with my field-notebook. I lost my copy of his ‘New Selected Poems’ (1999), which is doubly unfortunate as I have been wanting to share this particular poem (below) with my dear friend Joe for more than quite some time.

While it makes no sense to say that Gray humanises the abattoir I want to say that The Meatworks does just that. I have reproduced the poem from Gray’s ‘New Selected Poems’ (1999), pp. 29-30.

 

The Meatworks

Most of them worked around the slaughtering
out the back, where concrete gutters
crawled off
heavily, and the hot, fertilizer-thick,
sticky stench of blood
sent flies mad,
but I settled for one of the lowest-paid jobs, making mince
right the furthest end from those bellowing,
sloppy yards. Outside, the pigs’ fear
made them mount one another
at the last minute. I stood all day
by a shaking metal box
that had a chute in, and a spout,
snatching steaks from a bin they kept refilling
pushing them through
arm-thick corkscrews, grinding around inside it, meat or not –
chomping, bloody mouth –
using a greasy stick
shaped into a penis.
When I grabbed it the first time
it slipped, slippery as soap, out of my hand,
in the machine
that gnawed it hysterically a few moments
louder and louder, then, shuddering, stopped;
fused every light in the shop.
Too soon to sack me –
it was the first thing I’d done.
For a while, I had to lug gutted pigs
white as swedes
and with straight stick tails
to the ice rooms, hang them by the hooves
on hooks – their dripping
solidified like candle-wax – or pack a long intestine
with sausage meat.
We got to take meat home –
bags of blood;
red plastic with the fat showing through.
We’d wash, then
out on the blue metal
towards town; but after sticking your hands all day
in snail-sheened flesh,
you found, around the nails, there was still blood.
I usually didn’t take the meat.
I’d walk home on
the shiny, white-bruising beach, in mauve light,
past the town.
The beach, and those startling, storm-cloud mountains, high
beyond the furthest fibro houses, I’d come
to be with. (The only work
was at this Works.) – My wife
carried her sandals, in the sand and beach grass,
to meet me. I’d scoop up shell-grit
and scrub my hands,
treading about
through the icy ledges of the surf
as she came along. We said that working with meat was like
burning-off the live bush
and fertilizing with rottenness,
for this frail green money.
There was a flaw to the analogy
you felt, but one
I didn’t look at, then –
the way those pigs stuck there, clinging onto each other.

 

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Poetry turnst(y)le: The Meatworks by Robert Gray

  1. Beautiful poem comrade. “but after sticking your hands all day
    in snail-sheened flesh,
    you found, around the nails, there was still blood.” When I first went vegetarian all those years ago, I had just moved to Canberra and was supporting myself via wage slavery at the Coles supermarket deli. I can still remember how the chicken blood would get into the pores of my skin and make it itch, and how the smell of death would follow me, no matter how hard I tried to scrub it away. I eventually transferred to the bakery, working from 5-8 before my lectures would start at 9, rather than continue in that hell. What spoke to me about that prose is how intrinsically our oppression is intertwined. It is always the poor, desperate workers who are given this job the gentry would rather be concealed behind walls of shining stainless steel. For anyone who says to me that the liberation of animals is a ‘lesser struggle’, that my ‘elitist ideologies’ have no relevance to the working poor, I would ask them to walk across a killing floor, to smell the fear and death and hear the grinding noise, and honestly tell me that it is not just the extension of the violent oppression we all face. I would say that until we are willing to unflinchingly fight for the the freedom of all, none of us will be free, and that nothing, nothing is more elitist than oppressing the most vulnerable among us. Thanks for sharing!

    • James

      Joe, having grown up in an abbatoir as the son of a meat inspector i have experienced all aspects of this industry, the smell and putrid taste of the slaughter room air. The screeching of the bleeding animals fighting for any last semblance of life – yet knowing intrinsically the reality facing them.

      The great thing about Australian industry though is that the “poor desperate workers” who do these jobs get paid a fortune for doing so. My uncle (a meat inspector) gets paid nearly as twice as much as me (a teacher) for doing this job. Out of all my friends and family i was the academically intelligent one who made the mistake of becoming educated. Now i am the only one who is still renting and I have the lowest income – don’t feel too sorry for these workers – they are the truly intelligent ones.

      • Your description James, “…the smell and putrid taste of the slaughter room air. The screeching of the bleeding animals fighting for any last semblance of life…’ is truly evocative and horrific.

        I had no idea that abattoir workers were relatively well paid – certainly teachers are outrageously underpaid in Australia – but I had no idea that they earn nearly twice as much as school teachers. It is a disturbing comparison when cast in terms of preference and economic value.

        Your final point takes me back to the end of Gray’s poem – rather than the ‘truly intelligent ones’ are they not the people Gray refers to when he writes:

        “We said that working with meat was like
        burning-off the live bush
        and fertilizing with rottenness,
        for this frail green money.”

  2. jamestimothy2

    Thank you for letting me invade and comment on your blog. I actually stumbled across it when i was looking for some Robert Gray poems because he is one of my favourite Australian poets (aside from Lawson and Paterson) and i was intrigued by your friend Joe’s response. As an English teacher confined by the bureaucratic life sucking diplomats at the board of studies I am not really allowed to disseminate my personal point of view, ideologies and beliefs in the classroom. They fear that i might actually corrupt the students own moral and ethical development, yet how can we expect them to be independent thinkers when we are too scared to model our own convictions to them? Sometimes I miss having a forum where conflicting ideas are viewed as a basis for greater discourse. In saying that however I also love the practicality of classroom teaching. Unfortunately though poetry is usually analysed mechanically – focussing on structure, tone, techniques and all of the boring stuff that makes students hate poetry. So it was nice to see interesting discussion about one of my favourite poems on your site.
    In terms of my previous response I have great respect for the unionist movement which has driven the role and esteem of the working class in Australian society. Modern Australian industry rewards workers with some of the highest paid employment and conditions in the entire world. Basically we get paid well for doing the jobs no one else wants to do. Some time ago I was having a discussion with a missionary friend of mine who spent 8 years in India. He recounted an occasion where a group of Australian Christians had arrived for an “impact team”. Apparently in India your occupation is a key aspect of your social identity. One of the Inidan men asked one of the Australian visitors about his occupation, to which the man replied ‘ I collect garbage’. The Indian man did not believe him citing that no garbage collector could ever afford to feed his family, let alone afford a plane ticket. The Australian then proceeded to explain that in our great country they are called “waste engineers” and paid more than a lot of highly educated academics. I see your point of view in your last statement but I have to say that the comment following Gray’s statement in the poem adds some conflict to this. He says:
    “There was a flaw to the analogy
    you felt, but one
    I didn’t look at, then”
    I’ll come back to this in a minute after I set a bit of context for my interpretation of this poem.
    Although there are elements of working class oppression in the poem I believe that Gray is touching on an issue far more primal than this – the concept of instinctual masculinity in a male’s self-identity. I grew up around knives and guns. At the age of 10 I was hunting birds and rabbits and our games of ‘cops and robbers’ involved real slug guns that we would shoot each other with hoping to avoid taking out an eye. As I stated before my father was a meat inspector (which did not pay that well back in the 80s and early 90s) and while my mother was studying at night school my sister and I would spend night shift wandering the halls of the meatworks with our father. It was through my childhood experiences that I began to form my own conceptions of masculinity. The thrill of the hunt to kill was not necessarily ‘fun’ but it filled my masculine need to feel powerful and a sense of belonging to my family and community. Don’t misinterpret me my family are not ‘rednecks’ or socially inept – but there were certain practices that instinctively defined your acceptance and a strong stomach was one of them. Many tribal cultures define their sense of manhood with an act of violence against animals, each other or themselves and boys are transformed instantaneously into men because of these acts.
    Gray begins his poem discussing his physical separation from the other workers. He states
    Most of them worked around the slaughtering
    out the back, where concrete gutters
    crawled off
    heavily, and the hot, fertilizer-thick,
    sticky stench of blood
    The alliteration used here is very effective in producing strong emotive imagery. It demonstrates his disgust not only at the sight and stench of the slaughtering floor, but at the men who worked this area probably in a “matter of fact” manner. In fact he was so disgusted that he
    “settled for one of the lowest-paid jobs, making mince
    right the furthest end from those bellowing,
    sloppy yards.”
    This physical separation from the other workers would have produced a social and psychological division most likely established by the perceptions of the other workers who are ‘man enough’ to handle the experiences that the persona could not.
    From this point the language and concepts become more tribal. There are 3 elements that I believe are key instinctual factors that assist in constructing a male’s sense of self identity –
    1) Success in employment/ vocation
    2) Their percieved influence/ power over others and security in relationships (especially as ‘breadwinner’ in the family unit)
    3) Their strong sexual urges and ‘performance’ in the bedroom
    Gray uses sexual connotation fairly obviously throughout the middle part of this poem to evoke an exploration of the persona’s ‘manhood’. The “pigs mounting one another” begins a barrage of crass sexual imagery that represents Gray’s own struggle with his masculinity in this job.
    chomping, bloody mouth –
    using a greasy stick
    shaped into a penis.
    When I grabbed it the first time
    it slipped, slippery as soap, out of my hand,
    in the machine
    that gnawed it hysterically a few moments
    louder and louder, then, shuddering, stopped;
    fused every light in the shop.
    His inability to grasp his own sense of ‘manhood’ (the slippery penis-like stick) has affected his ability to achieve success in his job. He cannot feel a sense of personal achievement because he has elected to take a lower paying job on account of his disgust at the slaughterfloor. In a sense he is out of touch with his internal desire to dominate others. He was content to lug the carcasses into the ice rooms, but avoided the savagery of the killing of these animals. This lack of a desire to succeed may be a perceived reflection of his lack of dominance in an environment defined by pure base natural instinct – both sexual and a lust for a sense of power and dominance.
    There is a development toward the end of the poem. It is only when meeting his wife that the persona decides to wash the “snail sheened flesh” from his fingernails. Was this a practical activity – perhaps. It does however raise a number of questions about his relationship with his wife. Did he gain his sense of masculinity through his relationship with his wife? If this is the case then the washing of the hands may be a symbolic gesture to represent the distinction between his self identity at work and at home.
    There may however be suggestion that the wife has a demasculating influence on him. He removes the traces of his hard work in preparation to meet her. She encourages him to avoid any semblance of dignity in his job with the statement:
    “We said that working with meat was like
    burning-off the live bush
    and fertilizing with rottenness,
    for this frail green money”
    Yet he secretly has his doubts
    “There was a flaw to the analogy
    you felt, but one
    I didn’t look at, then”
    She has removed his sense of self identity in his job, his ability to earn money and support his family sufficiently (frail green money) reducing all of his hard work to one simple (flawed) analogy. His final response? Resort back to a man’s strongest instinctual urge – sex (“The way those pigs stuck there, clinging onto each other)

    Since you have an interest in feminism I thought I’d present you with a masculist reading of the poem.

    • joseph fayad

      i love your analysis of this poem!! unfortunately i have just started yr12 and with the new AOS being “discovery” there isn’t much information out there about some of the poems. however, your analysis and interpretation has really helped me out. thank you so much.
      regards.

  3. jamestimothy2

    oopss when i said “From this point the language and concepts become more tribal” i meant more primal.

  4. Jayjohn75

    Having used this poem today in my English class, the discourse that came out of its examination was amazing. It really challenged the students’ perceptions of what some workplaces require and raised the question of ethical food consumption. I shared an anecdote of an earlier time in my youth when I worked at a major chicken processing plant and saw the biological results on neighbouring birds due to their consumption of the biproducted disposed of out the back.

    Shocking

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