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.
Most of them worked around the slaughtering
out the back, where concrete gutters
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,
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.