Posted by: John Looker | 2 May, 2012

FACTORY HANDS

Another poem in the series looking at life through work:

FACTORY HANDS 

Day 1 of his new life:
a full day’s journey has parted him
from the village of his childhood and youth;
a hostel has now become his home,
and this machine
embracing him
will become, we might say,
his wife.

Above his head,
within a rigid frame,
the regular turn of a cam
drives down
a cylinder of steel
to hammer the metal sheets
he inserts
on the template bed. 

The noise inside these walls!
The white unvarying light;
the time-keeping
minute by minute.
Everywhere are notices
in unfamiliar scripts –
and frank advice in locker rooms
in semi-literate scrawls. 

He’s paid of course by piece-rate
and this is foreign to him,
but it offers the hope
if he puts in the hours and keeps up the pace
of sending the family a magical sum,
and for this it helps
that the safety guard has been removed
by an older, canny, team-mate. 

Day 1 –
with different rules,
with purposeful social ties,
and even a set of clothes
handed to him
out of a common store –
yes, a new life
patently has begun.

© John Stevens 2012

You can find earlier poems in this series by clicking on the Poem Category “Looking at Life through Work” in the panel to the right.

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Responses

  1. This is a great piece John. This kind of
    work is horrendous. The line ” the safety guard
    has been removed” speaks to much more than
    just a piece of safety equipment. Very moving

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  2. Hi John
    my son is now working in a factory working nightshifts as well as days, just to get money in between studies, and I do hope the safety is better there! You describe it as if you have been there yourself, wonderful poem.

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  3. “Everywhere are notices
    in unfamiliar scripts –
    and frank advice in locker rooms
    in semi-literate scrawls.”
    LOVE this strophe, but I keep reading it as “locker room walls”…

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  4. John, the series continues. I think you are going to have to consider publishing a book one of these days, although I suspect you are just getting started. I see David Agnew is about to launch his new book, and his publisher will be present at the launch.
    The significance of this poem is in the first line:
    Day 1 of his new life
    The poet notices that this is a new life as opposed to an old one that has been left behind “the village of his childhood and youth.” This new life is not perfect. He’s traveled a day to get there and now he has to live in a hostel room, not a home, but like all those who move, from foreign lands or from the farm to the factory, the new life, at least at first, and maybe longer, provides a splash of hope.
    The description of this new work is wonderful:
    Above his head,
    within a rigid frame,
    the regular turn of a cam
    drives down
    a cylinder of steel
    to hammer the metal sheets
    he inserts
    on the template bed.

    The noise inside these walls!
    The white unvarying light;

    Time, of course, has changed its nature:

    the time-keeping
    minute by minute.

    He’s paid of course by piece-rate,
    seeing this as possibly an alien way of getting to send money back home where they need it, “if he puts in the hours and keeps up the pace.” The need back home is so great that he sees
    that the safety guard has been removed
    by an older, canny, team-mate…
    trading a safe life to one where hard, unrelenting work can lead to something as long as nothing bad happens. Oh,
    …yes, a new life
    patently has begun.
    This poem moves us from the farmer in the field throwing his arm back through time when earlier men occupied the same piece of land to the roaring of the industrial revolution and its strange twisting of life into “time-keeping minute by minute” and “white unvarying light.” What these poems are beginning to tell is the rich, complex history of humankind reflected by work for pay. I can’t tell you how impressed I am, John, by your willingness to take on such an immense tapestry. This ranks with the most ambitious projects on the web that I know about: Betty Hayes Albright’s “Mayberrie” series is an example. This is not only effective poetry, but also makes poetry meaningful, plumbing the depths of human experience.

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  5. I showed this to one of my clients, who worked in the Pennsylvania steel mills for forty plus years. He said it is spot on. “The romance of work” — said without bitterness. The image of the wife and the magic money and the safety guard all hit home to him — as positive facts about that life. I do think this is an aspect of your work that is hard to classify in this poetic climate. You do not intend to write from an ideological position; you don’t intend a “surplus” of signification. Your intentions are in a sense historical. The semantic range hovers near that of good prose — and we all know that most poetry is bad prose! That said, there are a few touches that suggest a personal tone — a touch of indignation, a surge of lament, esp. the equivocation on “purposeful.” His “social ties” now are “purposeful” in the sense they are given meaning according to a univocal system of the work place. In the larger scheme of things . . . but the poem won’t vouch for their being one. This may be accounted for in terms of contemporary squeamishness about making metaphysical statements (such as the Chinese classics, equally interested in historical accounts, make from the depths of the Dao). But I think every working person who has supported a family knows the “magic” of the pay check. I certainly did in my youth bringing home a paycheck from New York or Boston, both cities that define themselves in terms of the amount of money changing hands per minute. Thus the “real” background of the poem is the tragedy of capital, the replacement of the “purpose” of life with that of profit for owners and “magic” for workers. In this order, which is now virtually world-wide and has replaced the “order” of states and empires, not to mention religions and philosophies, people are measured as “units” on the analogy with units of wealth. Wealth has become the measure. This poem gives us a page of history and is of extraordinary value as a poem for that.

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  6. Thank you for your interest everyone; I find your comments most helpful. And, Tom, it is especially reassuring to hear that someone with industrial experience calls this “spot on” – so thank you very much for that. I’m pleased, Thomas, to find that the references back to the first poem have worked as well; it’s all part of a series of separate but reinforcing poems. I am encouraged to press on – there are two to come in this batch.

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  7. I had to squint up my eyes and read the last line a couple of times before I finally read ‘patently’ instead of ‘patiently’. It is a mark of the power of the last line that these two words could change the whole poem so radically. In my willful (and, let’s say it, inaccurate) reading, the narrator of the poem is a fatherly figure, looking down on, as it were, a little chick, struggling, with wide eyes, the little man, sending home money. ‘Patently’, however, changes the ballgame. Openly, honestly, plainly—a patent; a grant; something made public; Middle English: a document granting a right; to my mind the most common usage is ‘patent nonsense’…So what kind of life has patently begun? Well, it’s a new life. It seems to involve powerful machinery with the safety guards taken off by an ‘older, canny teammate’. Some teammate. And that ‘canny’ sounds ironic, doesn’t it? What do you mean remove it helps to remove the safety guard? Except that everybody takes that stuff off, don’t they? You really can’t work with all those guards. It’s why woodworkers have the occasional missing finger. (I could tell stories here.) ‘Canny’ in short, spins the line off in a dangerous direction. It pits an official reality with a ‘how it is’ reality (and I am quoting Beckett here). Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys. (And I am quoting…well, you know.) So which reality are we portraying here?
    And while Thomas (Davis) is right, the description of the ‘new’ life is nicely done; this new is hardly new, is it? Charlie Chaplin went to work in the same sort of factory. Tom (D’Evelyn)’s client worked like that for 40 years. Yes, I know, it is still new to our newbie—but like ‘canny’ and ‘patent’, ‘new’ seems to be spinning the poem in directions the narrator/ poet hadn’t quite planned. It’s new and not new. And while I’m not sure if the background story is the tragedy of capitalism or the tragedy of industrialism (people who work on a farm are called farm hands, right?) our unnamed and un-described lad seems to have a lonely life ahead of him.
    I wonder, John, when is this poem set? It doesn’t seem contemporary. That full day’s journey…was it walked? There’s a beguiling romance here. Rather clever. Rather subtle. Not patent at all. And those safety guards…where did you hide them?

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    • You raise astute questions as ever, Jim. I’m not sure that my answers would be the same as someone else’s.
      I found this poem tricky because in this batch I’m trying to find the universal in human experience of work, and industrialisation represents a break point in our experience of making things. My answer was to try to catch that moment of transition, whenever and wherever it occurs. But only others can say whether I’ve managed that, or whether they find the result interesting.
      (I’m working without safety guards myself on this!)

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  8. John, I wasn’t aware of this great series of your poetry either. It will take some time, but I’ll try to catch up with reading your work. Your writing is wonderful!!

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  9. Good Lord, John. The commenters you are gathering are unbelievable! I’m envious. I read these comments and seem to be taking a graduate course in literature and the reading of literature. This is something! You must be doing something right.

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    • Well, it’s not my fault, buddy! I blame Tom, Jim – and you!

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  10. I find this poem such a mix of hope and then despair, freedom and then entrapment, a new life but within an environment which is so controlled and stayed…even dangerous and threatening. John, I haven’t read the above comments, but I agree with Thomas Davis when he says that coming here is like taking a graduate course in literature. It must feel good to have these kinds of discussions about your poems, and it is good for me to partake of them, too.

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  11. I love the variety of comments, Anna. I learn a great deal from those of you who have truly studied poetry and who open my eyes to the inner workings of my own pieces. Equally, I feel honoured – and enlightened – when I receive straightforward reactions just telling me how the poems have struck somebody. Feedback of all kinds (positive and negative alike) is very stimulating and I try to use it as a guide to future efforts.

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