Squats three days at a time in white brown mud
that sticks and sucks like a mouth against
everything it touches. The long battle,
the bit by bit of urging steel to the centre
of the earth. Dreams of sinking
past the slow riot of oil, sand, and stone,
to the bottom of the prairie shield.
Rig out. The pylons packed, extinguishers
strapped, the guy wires of the stack plucked
to swing loose again against the sky. Everything ends,
briefly, and the iron world moves on.
Only the tire ruts are left, six inches
deep, wet with water and an oil sheen,
and even those are eaten over by wheat
and flax and mustard seeds.
No mark survives this place: you too will yield
to unmemory. Give everything you are
in three-day pieces. Watch the gypsy-iron
move, follow its commands,
tend the rusted steel like a shepherd.
The Hound has asked me to introduce two poems written by an associate of mine, a Mr. Mathew Henderson, originally of Prince Edward Island. These two poems are from a sequence called “Oilfield Poems” that made it to the shortlist for the most recent round of CBC Literary Awards. I’m a fan of Matt’s work, so this is a privilege.As mentioned, Henderson is a Prince Edward Islander, and this suite of poems inspired by his time spent working the oil patches of Alberta would appear to come right out of his province’s richest poetic vein: the so-called “work” poetry of Milton Acorn, through to Richard Lemm, all the way forward to the more contemporary examples like David Hickey’s debut book, In the Lights of a Midnight Plow. This is fair for a piece of genealogy, though it’s a little too closely informed by geography to be trusted as a helpful introduction. Surely, much of what Matt has written so far has been framed by a fascination with the physicality of work, specifically the close-up sensuality of manual labour. There are traces here of early John Steffler, and maybe Alden Nowlan. I understand these are all male poets, and I would never put Henderson’s work on a gender uniformity kick, but working from what we’ve come to call “work poetry”, we often end up, accidentally, in the sub-division known as “work poetry, written by men.” The source of this mistake is largely cultural, as the physicality of work, when presented by a female poet, tends to be given different names reflecting that work’s different economic valuation: the domestic poem, the mothering poem, etc. There are female poets writing bout paid manual labour, of course. But they are outnumbered by people like Sharon Olds, she being very much a work poet, though one of the unpaid economy. Olds employs all the same mechanics and tropes and tricks of a, say, Tom Wayman.The role of metaphor in the poem above is to suggest a paranoid danger, Henderson’s polyphonic machines are always threatening to come apart into their component pieces, to shudder into something unpredictable (that “mouth” in the first stanza, or the personification of oil as something that “riots). Unlike, say, Steffler’s benevolent pipes, Henderson’s drills are not to be trusted, they are always just a short paradigm shift away from monsterhood.
Oilfield Love Poem
Town is his wife. His daughter: Elizabeth.
Out here is just pussy: shower, shave,
condoms, call home, goodnight I love you.
You hear big hands on the door,
the sway of the housekeeping sign.
Listen with closed eyes to the quiet
liquored fucking one bed over.
You hear the wake up call, an engine
choked from sleep, the whistle of the gas
and the nightshift pulling up. His phone—
goodnight, I love you, and you love her too,
like she’s the last woman not in the patch.
I’d like to suggest another tradition for the reading of Matt’s work. If you take the prosody of the work poem, add in the element of travel, the loneliness, and the stiff and faceless camaraderie of young men, you end up in the neighbouring tradition of war poetry. It’s not hard to hear Yusef Komunyakaa’s Vietnam experience licking at the edges of Henderson’s oilfield lyrics. The fear of the machine, the paranoia, the loneliness, the hollow machismo of youth, these and more are shared ingredients. Henderson’s self-discovery via drill bit is similar in its sensuality and bluntness to Wilfred Owen’s morbid fascination with his rifle.There’s a politics, there, somewhere. And if it’s not there on the page, then here’s me giving it to you: war is a consistent cultural escape valve for our many narratives about lower- or middle-class youth from the fringes of the nation hoping to make good. Speaking as someone who has seen the entire rest of his residence floor from his freshman year of university (Memorial, Class of 2006. Go Seahawks) since move west for work in the oilfields, I suggest that the dreams of the quick dollar, the identity offered by legion, and the independence that drives the erstwhile young man of Galveston to the Marines drives that same man to the patches if he happened to grow up, as Matt Henderson did, in Charlottetown. The rumble and confusion that follows each of these adventurers shares a core vocabulary.Hendo is presently extending his suite of Oilfield Poems into his thesis at the University of Guelph’s MFA program in Toronto. It should be fun to watch them grow and expand.
Jacob McArthur Mooney lives in Toronto. His books are “The New Layman’s Almanac” (McClelland & Stewart, 2008) and “Folk” (M&S, 2011). He maintains the poetry blog called Vox Populism.