Guest Contribution by Alison Smith.
The poems below are from a series called Fishwork, Dear, which I wrote about ten years ago when I worked part-time at a couple of fish plants in a community south of Liverpool, Nova Scotia. I was a stay-at-home parent and my husband left with our car every morning. This was before high speed internet reached into rural Nova Scotia and I had to get what I needed from a 5 km radius. My weekly outing was a Ladies’ Baptist Sewing Circle (think embroidered pillow cases and devotionals) and one of the younger women invited me to try out work at a fish plant. The work was a godsend because I could get there on foot and I could refuse work when I couldn’t find childcare.
The poems are mostly concerned with the fall harvest of herring roe, which was (and probably still is) sold to a Japanese buyer. I was drawn to the ways that, in that workspace, women performed and undermined notions of agency and integrity. Paid by the weight of harvested roe, rather than by the hour, you could exercise agency by refusing to work if the raw materials were lacking, but I quickly realized that you could bank integrity by choosing to cut to the bitter end of a load.
I was drawn to the larger-than-life voices I heard and many of the phrases in the poems are “found”—these sluts left their eggs go; this week, baby, it’s bacon and eggs! are not phrases that I invented. Unlike at another plant, where we worked under a sign that said No cursing, there were no formal “jobs” to keep, and constraints on language seemed looser than usual. The voices that rose to the top were big, bossy and irreverent. Sometimes these voices entertained; sometimes they instructed; sometimes they were plain nasty. I felt ill-equipped to jump in, so, like most of the others, I spent my shifts unzipping fish with my knife, chatting quietly with my neighbour or eavesdropping.
The poetry that resulted is me playing to an empty room after I got home, riffing on things I heard, blending the voices of the workplace with my own poetic sensibility. I had fun with the poems but I also tried to allow room for the difficulties—I heard a lot of complaints about management, the scarcity of the work, as well as its physical demands.
I am in the process of revising these poems to include in a full-length manuscript of poems but for now, if you’d like to own a handsome little chapbook of Fishwork, Dear please contact Gaspereau Press.
Waiting for Fishwork
Weeks before this killing frost
praised pumpkins out of inland fields,
before blackberries, caged
by wild rose, dripped off their canes,
fishwork sold you a sack of Mondays,
an ample prospect for the weeks ahead.
But the first week is kitchen duty,
wait-for-the-call as dawn
touches the harbour’s foggy pate.
For days, you listen for the workhouse
with a cup against its horizon, heartsick,
convinced they’ve forgotten you.
Your hands idle on drumming digits,
eyes fidget on boots that stubbornly ungloss
each time they’re spit-and-polished.
Friday, when they haven’t called by ten,
the sack of Mondays is a mailbag,
the shuffling density you felt, unopened bills.
Dried hydrangea strums the kitchen screen
as if (rutch/rutch) can’t-sit-still-must-leave.
A cell phone commands the room—
be clean, be ready! Any moment
it will wriggle alive and
the company’s smoke-shacked rasp
(there’s fishwork, dear)
will send you into gull-flap,
down the bait-strewn spit where girls
shift, cut-ready in a gang of thirsty boots.
But just keep cool, for now. Why else
would they call you lady?
One Hand Out, In the Other a Knife
No one sings its praise, but the roe
slides into every palm, weighty now,
plush golden sacs. This week, baby,
it’s bacon and eggs.
Last week was bread and butter.
The week before, the fish weren’t worth
a grubby fist of spruce gum.
Mary backed us off the work.
The owners slowly uncrossed their arms
as we clogged the drains with the sterile,
gawk-eyed catch. A scarlet overflow
gushed into boots, pinked up socks
as Mary joyfully roared
We’re pieceworkers, not peace-full—
This morning issued standard complaints:
weak knees tennis elbows stiff hands cold feet.
Concentration tapped our shoulders
with forklift breath, all puckered up: Can’t slice it, girl?
Get your rest on pogie—
Another hour and Mary despairs
Red rover, red rover,
send Mercy over—
we hear the door and half expect
the mother o’ God to bust the line
but it’s Rach’, striding on crooked hips,
roe encrusted, a second hairnet pinned
to the yellow surf of her six-inch bangs.
Our Lady of Herring. And sure enough,
after the laughter, this sea change.
End of Herring Season, Burnings
Larch is a tall dog
arching over to let you
pet his shoulders, orange now,
knifed-up, doorstep Jack-O’
is dead. Last fish stuttered in
with balloons in their bellies:
nothing more than a piss trickle
and jokes dragged out on sharpening wind.
In town, I’m a bag of stale dulse.
Rach’ pretends she doesn’t know me
without my hairnet. Game over.
Fire trucks came Southwest
on spooking night to dismantle
the same old burning road block.
I say, good on you, boys,
hooligans need clamber
when the herring go deep-sea diving
and a week later
the workhouse is burnt to cinders.
The last cheques bounce
like the suspicion that dares to dog
a beloved story. I keep my eye
on the fall burnings,
sidestep as they blacken
the shore where rugosa
is the only guaranteed return.
Don’t look now, there’s fishwork,
half-cut, flagging her tail
in the sea’s periphery.
Show-off. As if her mouth were flush
with golden eggs, her gill-slits,
pockets for lost hands.
Alison Smith lives in New Germany, Nova Scotia. She is the author of The Wedding House(2001) and Six Mats and One Year(2003), both from Gaspereau Press. Follow Alison and her writing at aesmithwriter.wordpress.com.