Grilling Poetry

My nephew from Tanzania is starting to write poetry. He’s a nephew by affection, so there’s no biological connection to explain this. It’s simply a case of another teenager (this one tall, athletic, and 16 years old) falling in love with the power of words. Once again, I’m reassured that poetry is not a dying art.

When the family visited Canada this July, we saw as much of them as we could, including having them over for dinner at which we served barbequed sausages, much to David’s twin sister’s dismay. Anne had watched a documentary, Food, Inc., about where our meat comes from and she described it beautifully. I’m not sure we’ll be eating sausages again for a while.

Just before they left that evening, David set a challenge: to write poems to the sausages’ origin. He wrote his later that night, playing with the theme in an excellent metaphorical way. I took longer and was inspired by Anne’s concerns.

I had to be careful though. My first 17 drafts were intensely moralizing. And that wasn’t good.

Take a look at the first version:


Sausage once played in mud, little feet
wallowing in cool earth on way
to pull teat. Jostled with round
friends, no pink, just the coarse skin
of bristles mottled the colours genes
gave. Sun shone, went in. Pig grew
through winter’s barn, out to spring’s
trough where slop lay. And grew.
Heard rough grumble on track,
the squeal of metal then stop.
Lined up grunting, climbing, moving,
stinking, into walls, floors, white chill
leaking fear as stun ends pig and
stripping begins, reducing to useable
parts then grinding, the making
of sausage, happy sausage. Others
grow in cubicle, barn blind, no sun
to play. Meat mixed with other
misery we eat, stuffed in tight
foreign skin.

Note how I started by giving the reader no context for the poem, so my opening image is simply bizarre. Then I give the mass-market pigs short shrift and seem to imply they don’t go through the abattoir. And since I don’t give any information to explain the final phrase, ‘tight foreign skin’, the ending doesn’t work either. It’s irrelevant that I’m correct – Anne can grey your hair describing how supermarket sausages are made from pork from various countries combined in yet another country. If my readers don’t know what I’m talking about, then the poem fails.

So I added a new beginning, one that has my narrator opening a package of organic sausages, though I worked not to name that but only to show it in subsequent lines. I broke the poem into two stanzas so the warehoused pigs get their own prominence, even if only briefly. That hierarchy of attention is deliberate – it’s the only moralizing I allowed myself. Apart, that is, from the actual description of the pigs’ living conditions. But even there, I forced myself to be terse in the second part, not to linger, not to cast explicit value judgements. Remember, all this took me draft after draft. I’m not a quick learner.

Finally, I needed an ending. One that was honest – after all, I do eat sausages and feed them to guests (sorry Anne!). I decided to bring this poem back to the kitchen where it began. I wanted to state the facts and then serve them up. See what you think:


Looking back from brown paper, the coil
of links linked, we remember pig
once played in mud, little feet wallowing
in cool earth on way to teat pull. Jostled
with round friends, coarse skin of bristles
mottled the colours genes threw. Sun shone,
went in. Pig grew through winter’s barn, out
to spring’s trough where lunch lay, a feast
of barley and corn rain produced.

Others, now buried beneath the pressure
of shrink-wrap on foam tray, grew barn blind,
cubicle tight, bulked by slop sick cells would
thrive on. They too heard the rough grumble
on track, the squeal of metal stop. Lined up grunting,
stinking, into the place where white chill
leaks blood, where stun then stripping starts.
Useable parts packaged, the grind becomes
the sausage, bits and pieces crushed then stuffed
into casings we eat. After all, it’s dinner time.

What would be nice in a future version? I’ve just realized I’ve left out the smell of the sausages grilling, the taste of them in a toasted bun heaped high with onions and mustard. I feel another draft coming on …

P.S. Ian MacLachlan, my ‘boss’ at The Canadian Geographer, wrote a book on the beef industry with the great title, Kill and Chill. I’ve offered him Cluck and Pluck should he ever do chickens.




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