Tar Sticks to Everything
Stumps pierce a white blanket of snow—winter
in burley country. Three hundred stalks
per row stake and trap
history, which hangs over the country
side before falling
to earth. Autumn draws longer shadows
where a faded tinderbox barn looms—
its broad sides converge into sheet
metal lances aimed at an apathetic sun.
Inside its walls, a year's labor cures,
ten stalks per hickory stick each speared
at the base. As winter nears
the green blood dries and gravity
claims every leaf. Tar gathers dust
from a dark dirt floor. The farmer pulls
a leaf from its stalk, holds it first
to his nose, then to the fading light.
Flaccid. The browning hangs over knuckles
like skin. Dust and tar cover hands
that won't come clean
'til right before planting season.
Time for stripping, bundling leaves. Soon
another year's work auctioned—the weed
will rest in the hands of sinners and cancer
patients. The father closes the barn door
and turns away.
Behind him thin slats of light peer
through the dead oak boards,
while in the shadows his son cups
palms around an orange tell-tale cherry—
and coughs. The boy allows smoke
filled with pitch to warm his hands.
Copyright 2012 by Allen Gray
Critique by Laura Cherry
Writing poems is often considered to be an effete, elite process, far removed from ordinary folks and “real” work. One challenge to this limited notion of poetry is the work poem, which takes as its subject the unglamorous jobs, the mucking out of the world's stables. The act of writing such a poem can be a reclaiming or celebration of labor, whether it is one's own work, the work of one's family, or work more distantly observed. Capturing some form of work in a poem, particularly manual labor, so frequently marginalized in Western culture, can mean wrestling with all sorts of contradictions.
At the same time, work is an ideal subject for a poem. Jobs often come freighted with rich lexicons of terminology that can be plundered in the service of the poem. Work requires gloriously specific objects and actions. It is vivid even when boring, and it generates stories. Work makes things happen; it makes things. The work poem just needs to open the door to those things and let them in. Allen Gray's poem, “Tar Sticks to Everything”, does exactly that.
Gray's poem has an honorable lineage. Perhaps the most renowned “poet of work” is our current Poet Laureate, Philip Levine. Check out his “Fear and Fame” (from his collection What Work Is) for a masterful example of the genre. Levine is by no means alone, though. Other powerful collections dealing with physical labor include BH Fairchild's The Art of the Lathe; An Honest Answer and Hurricane Sisters, by Ginger Andrews (known as “the cleaning lady poet”, though she is much more); and Max Garland's The Postal Confessions. The speaker in Susan Eisenberg's Pioneering: Poems from the Construction Site is a woman working in a traditionally male job, doing physical labor. A beautifully poignant example of work poetry is Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove (see the poems “Straw Hat” and “Dusting”), based on the lives of Dove's grandparents. And for another perspective on work poetry, see “Poems on Work and Money” on the Academy of American Poets website. In addition to what we might call blue-collar poems, there are also many poems based on the plight or good fortune of the office worker (or doctor or lawyer or investment banker), but those will remain a topic for another time.
The work poem often deals with work that is difficult, dangerous, perhaps even morally compromised, and from these conflicts grows the richness and complexity of the poem. A whole subgenre of poetry has been written on the life of the coal miner, for example. Miners are subjected to extreme danger in both a daily and a long-term way. They do work that is demanding and tedious, in the dark, for little money. Historically, they are often mistreated by their employers. Yet there is a fascination, almost a mystique, surrounding the coal-mining life and its struggles. For examples of poetry about coal mining, see Tess Gallagher's “Black Money”, Philip Larkin's “The Explosion”, and the book Kettle Bottom, Diane Gilliam Fisher's luminous collection of voices from the West Virginia mining wars of 1920 and 1921.
Coal mining is an interesting counterpoint to the subject of Allen Gray's poem, the equally complicated world of tobacco farming. Here is another difficult job with its own rhythms, its own way of life and its own dark side: the physical blight it brings to all it touches.
Grey gives us a beautiful example of a work poem in “Tar Sticks to Everything”. The diction Gray uses to describe the materials and activities of the tobacco farm (burley, tar, hickory stick stakes, stripping and bundling leaves) conveys an easy, confident intimacy with the subject: this may not be a familiar place to us, but we sense we are in good hands.
Another thing I admire about this poem is the way Gray moves between concrete and figurative language. In the very first stanza, Gray gives us these lines:
...Three hundred stalks
per row stake and trap
history, which hangs over the country
side before falling
Replace “history” and “country/side” with details of the tobacco farm, and you still have evocative, vivid lines. As they stand, the abstractions lift the poem from the beginning to a higher level of discourse, but with ease, almost off-handedly. It takes guts to whip out such abstractions, and to use them without causing the poem to shift off-balance and grow portentous. With his casual tone, and by moving afterwards back to the actual scene, Gray pulls it off, and I'm delighted to see him do it.
In a similar move from bare fact to image, the visually evocative detail, “a faded tinderbox barn looms” is followed by the equally ominous metaphor of “sheet / metal lances aimed at an apathetic sun.” The latter image is another breakthrough judgment that works to set the poem's tone. There is little kindness in this landscape, but Gray shows us the beauty in its starkness and the sadness in its danger.
The language throughout the rest of the poem is casual, conversational, describing “the farmer”, who is also “the father”, checking his harvest as any farmer would do. The detail that “Dust and tar cover hands / that won't come clean / 'til right before planting season” tells us that his crop is as dangerous to him as it will be to those who eventually smoke it.
Gray does so many things right in this poem that I don't have space to detail them all here; in particular, his restraint, and his relaxed control of both the language and the material, make the poem powerful, not overblown. The title is a perfect example of this control, with its plain language but bold statement: this title conveys the poem's important points and establishes its voice. In telling us that “tar sticks to everything”, it implicates all of us in the tobacco-growing paradox: the farmer must grow his crop to make a living. Smokers are compelled to buy it. Farm subsidies allow the cycle to continue. Both the farmer's family and the crop's consumers are physically damaged. Morally, the situation is complex and nuanced; from most perspectives, it is tragic.
In only a few places does Gray wobble over the line of restraint into overstatement: the farmer's reflection that “the weed / will rest in the hands of sinners and cancer / patients” seems to cross that line to me. It would be more compelling, and more in keeping with the tone of the poem, to leave at least the cancer patients, and perhaps the sinners as well, merely implied.
More subtly, the dash just after the wonderful image in which “his son cups / palms around an orange tell-tale cherry” gives too much dramatic weight to the subsequent ominous cough. The reader gets the point, that the son himself is doomed by his father's livelihood, and does not need the dash to establish a pause. The light touch Gray uses in the rest of the poem would work well here to get the greatest possible power from these lines.
Finally, a small quibble with a detail that this particular reader finds distracting and confusing: the poem begins with “winter / in burley country” and then moves backward to “autumn”, which is then reinforced by the phrase “as winter nears.” A simple fix to establish temporal continuity would be to change “winter” in the first line to “fall”. That quintessentially American word for the season also puts us in the right spot, place-wise, for all that follows in this quiet and remarkable poem.
Where might a poem like “Tar Sticks to Everything” be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
New Letters Literary Awards
Postmark Deadline: May 18
Prestigious, competitive prize series from the University of Missouri-Kansas City literary journal gives $1,500 apiece for poetry, fiction, and essays
Beacon Street Prize
Entries must be received by May 30
Redivider, a literary journal based at Emerson College in Boston, MA, gives $500 apiece for unpublished poems and short stories; online entries accepted
Entries must be received by May 31
High-profile British contest awards prizes up to 5,000 pounds for poetry and short stories, 1,000 pounds for flash fiction; online entries accepted
Guy Owen Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: June 15
Long-running award includes $1,000 and publication in Southern Poetry Review, a fine journal that favors rich, imagistic work
Ledbury Poetry Festival Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by July 3
Contest sponsored by UK-based poetry festival awards 1,000 pounds (cash prize added in 2012) and free tuition to a writing course at the Ty Newydd Creative Writing Center, North Wales; no simultaneous submissions
This poem and critique appeared in the May 2012 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).