BRIGHT: Tobacco Butts, Behind the Needle, and Baleful Tales of Barn and Bunkhouse | Poems — Amber Homeniuk
BRIGHT as in Brightleaf tobacco or, perhaps more commonly, Virginia tobacco, the contemporary variant of the ancient sacred plant of Native Americans now used for making cigarettes. Amber Homeniuk is a poet who grew up on a southwestern Ontario tobacco farm just a few miles from the tobacco farm where I grew up. We’re of different generations; I worked on one of the last field gangs in the neighbourhood to use work horses  — you don’t see any horses in Amber’s family photographs below. The public attitude to tobacco has undergone such a sea change that it is difficult to speak with nostalgia, but Amber does and I do. Tobacco people are a bit bemused at the sudden turn; once we were the envy of our less go-ahead neighbours; now we’re next thing to baby seal killers.
But growing up on a tobacco farm meant you were enveloped in a culture, a world, an annual cycle of event and ritual. We had our own language (kil or kill for kiln, boat for the narrow sleds drawn by horses between the rows — see the poem “Field Notes” below for a mini-glossary). At various times I was a leaf-hander, boat-driver, kill-hanger (like Lance below) and primer (a picker in the field gang). So it is a deep pleasure to present Amber’s poems; that vanished or vanishing life captured in her verse and accompanied with a selection of family photos (some of the people in the pictures are family members, but all the images are from the Homeniuk farm).
Tying Machine Trio
swaying Mary, drunk in the morning
visor low over wet-eyed walnut face
drags her dew-soaked leaves
across the back of my neck
freezing streams seep down my shirt
with every armful
while her lit smoke sizzles at my ear
I fix Mary’s bottom layer
butt the stems against the board
crowded to the right
until I’m tripping into Tammy
all the sticks sandwiched tight
between the pegs
I dash out to the wagon
haul another 50-bundle
pop the twine
fierce Tammy minds the needle
– like a husky, eh?
thin-lipped snarl to match
her smart mouth and sharp elbow
and god help you if I have to stop this thing
hollers this and her wedding plans
above the noise
us dirty, apron-clad, three
rotting wrinkled hands in rubber gloves
ghost-prints on our food at break
Blonde bearded Lance fancied himself
in sun-bright angled mirrors, his antique truck
blue on the horizon
Lived for town in black jeans seamed with silver conchos
Fancy Pants Lance wrecked a washing machine
and some hearts that summer
Us kids in the kil(n), picking up leaves
lighting and passing up smokes
Monosyllabic, lank-haired, plenty
of stashed bottles, slow smiles, sway
he drained my mother’s patience
“Goddammit, Jim! Hell are you doing up there?”
His prolonged pause
faint “… Redecorating!” got her
Lost in laughter, collapsed
on matted grass and scattered leaf butts
Chris (and Drew)
He hurdled the concrete birdbath every night
towering teenaged Chris, aloft
fresh muscles college-track ready
Drew, diminutive, tagged behind, slapped mosquitoes
bemoaned his primer’s physique:
Below pumped pecs, delts, biceps, lats
a butt yay-wide, and wasted matchstick legs
Ecstatic, grimacing, always
caressing his cheek with a cruddy cloth
Bunny wouldn’t stop
grabbing my hand as I passed him loaded laths
Leered, “I know, I know!” when told again to fuckin’ cut it out
Apron hiked, my sister
chased him ‘round the kil(n)yard with a rake
Later, Dad marched her to the bunkhouse to apologize
Bunny whined, “Why, why Missy so mean to me?”
and spat, “I curse you! Curse you!”
On my back
blinking chunks of rust beneath my broke machine
and Walter from the Old Country shook the conveyor
jeering “Ayyy! Woman!” as metal moaned and tilted
blocked wheels rocked free onto my hat
Launched me wild-haired, teeth bared, double-fisted
with screwdriver and dull curving string-knife
It was my job to drive him home at day’s end
claw hammer under the seat
Machines stopped. Clattering and groaning
climbing-boards dropped from tiers
Charlene shouts, “Skee-ip! Are you causin’ havoc?”
Skip’s puzzled face at the upper kil(n) door
“No, mam – I don’t got no Cousin, name Havoc.”
Ever hopeful, “… but would the ladies like to sing Bob Marley?
Back to de bunkhouse, smoke de sensi today?”
“How ’bout today!” “Yes, womans, come! Today?”
A crew of tired filthy children
brought in Dad’s last harvest
frosty breath-clouds lit above our drooping heads
in a ring of vehicle headlights
Conveyor still sending up sticks
my brother Tom staggered ’round the corner
clutching his back, signalling stop – stop – stop
All hands hours clearing the mess
that buried him in the kil(n)
CEA Primer’s Primer
I ride the foggy sunrise to the field
my eyes a-stream in swollen sheet-creased face
wrapped up in yellow rain suit ‘gainst the chill
and rocked in lazy Susan’s hard embrace
I pad my seat with crumpled Pfizer bag
the feckin’ metal cracked – my ass, it aches
Stiff knuckles taped, my chafing boots, I drag
and dream of lemon squares at coffee break
I blink away the burning sour dew
whites of my eyes like blood of aphids, red
I pack the leaves, stems lined up nice for you
full baskets, ‘spite my weary pounding head
The farmer says how many leaves I pick
Machine noise hides where-up this job I’d stick
Such orn’ry hunk of steel I never seen:
machine what bears me up and down the row
from road to woods that smell of walnut green
This endless harvest, oh, back bent so low
The sand-filled humid air, it do oppress
I feel the heat of lightning on my face
This empty field and storm-rod quickly bless –
we finish out the day at cracking pace
The wind picks up and I a-fix my cap
pull down the tarps and knot my yellow ropes
A load of leaves yet cradled in my lap
I fancy my hot date with blue-grit soap
By baskets topped with flowers or juicy worms
those kil’yard gals will know this primer’s charms
Us primers we enjoy to piss and moan
and deeply foul fumes we all emit
Boat driver, bring a flask for tired bones
back out for one last load – be done with it!
My clothes all caked with tar and salt and grit
and sticky black tobacco gum, I scrub
I dunk my head again until I hit
slick bottom of the rippled metal tub
Run through white arcing pulse, we irrigate
the bunkhouse wall, and head to town for beer
Cicada song and souls reverberate
though God-damn feckin’ morning always near
‘Til next time I bolt up from sleepy fog
with arms a-priming, like a dreamin’ dog
Farmall  Education
for Sean Steel
stalk-cutting time in sun so clear and hard
breathing again after tobacco harvest
the workers gone
a whole bright echoing field of stripped stakes
like tall knobbled legs in ruffled panties
with suckers coming in above their absent leaves
they fall beneath my plywood shield
in an endless deep crunching
crisp canes give to cutter-blades hitched behind
the dull red 140, smelling of barn dust, old rope, and grease
teardrop-handled levers, cracked wheel, sprung seat
stuffing and shreds of all the fertilizer bags I lifted
bent diamond-plate grit-worn to silver and rust
standing on the clutch with both feet
clanking pins, bones, and chains
the tractor’s whistling fur-edged chug
blunted by my bundled hood
and the shady peak of my dad’s green Vorlex cap
below embroidered sign of golden leaf
brown knot-buttoned sweater, caramel warmth
knit into cables and wales, heathered
grimy grey plaid pants and rubber boots
the rows, they scissor past and past
muffler lulled by flapping weather-shield
hypnotic nodding hinge and rhythmic ring
revolving treads braid loops in sandy soil
my eyes drift, fingers loosen
blurring the fountaining rain
of citrine leaves and pink trumpet blossoms
sticky flecks bitter on my lips
exhaust sweet against my face like heat
Topping / suckering:
Walk the field, arms overhead
pain of impact, cracking canes /
Frisk plants with Saturday-night backseat passion
pinch budding growths
at the V of stalk and leaf
Water jug: always at the other end of the field
Harvest: in Southwestern Ontario
second week of August ‘til late September – or first frost.
Sticky black nicotine resin
accumulates through contact with tobacco plants
May dissolve from skin with solvents or bleach
piss-yellow stains remain
Tar-stiffened clothing can free-stand.
bloated with green juices
Tying machine: Giant electric sewing contraption, string bucket, greasy wheel, belts, looper, pegs, cutter. Saggy tarp leaks precisely down one’s collar; pistoning needle long as your hand. Feeds stick-units of tobacco up a steep conveyor from which the kilnhanger fills the kiln. What could go wrong?
Ride-on planter, cultivator attachment, priming machine, etc.:
sisters – “Go a little faster!”
younger brother, turning – “I’m not a bastard!”
Water jug: and would ya quit puttin’ yer mouth all over the g.d. spout
— Amber Homeniuk
Amber Homeniuk works as an expressive arts therapist with youth and families and sustains a variety of individual and collaborative arts practices. Her writing has appeared in online and print journals including The Writer’s Block, the Hart House Review, and POIESIS: A Journal of the Arts and Communication, and is included in the anthology Beyond the Seventh Morning (Hidden Brook Press / SandCrab Books, 2013). Back in the day, she was awarded Honourable Mention for the E.J. Pratt Medal and Prize in Poetry, and placed second in the Hart House Literary Contest. Amber served as co-editor for the Lynn River Review, Vol. 2: Moving Earth (Norfolk Arts Centre, 2011), and was the 2012 scholarship recipient for the Words Aloud 9 spoken word festival in Durham, Ontario. She most recently completed a commissioned chapbook of ekphrastic poems and photographs in response to a sculpture installation by Mary Catherine Newcomb titled Product of Eden: Field of Mice. Though Amber maintains a personal style blog under the moniker Butane Anvil, you may spot her wandering rural Norfolk County, just outside Waterford, Ontario, wearing pyjamas and black rubber boots, trailed by a small flock of hens.
- Here’s an excerpt from my memoir “The Familiar Dead” (in Notes Home from a Prodigal Son):
Tobacco defined [my father’s] days, from greenhouse preparation in the spring to planting to harvest in August and September to grading and baling through the fall. A tobacco plant stands about shoulder height with broad, lush leaves stretching from a tough, woody stalk. The flowers emerge at the top, a spray of pink and white trumpets. The leaves are always slightly lighter underneath, so when a wind comes up and the leaves begin to toss, the effect can be startlingly beautiful, like a squall moving across a lake. Mornings after a heavy dew, or after a rain shower, you can stand next to a field of tobacco and hear the soft tump-tumping of water drops falling onto the lower leaves–just silence and that sound of water hitting the leaves.
Growing up outside Waterford in the 1950s and 1960s seemed ineluctably interwoven with the growing of tobacco. Tobacco farmers were considered smart operators, substantial individuals. We had our own language: “primers” for pickers, “boat”–as in “boat-row,” “boat-driver”–a high-sided sled dragged by horses between the rows during harvest, “kills” for kilns. Everyone worked in tobacco, or aspired to work in tobacco. It was a rite of passage: you started as a boat-unloader and worked up to primer (the most strenuous) or kiln-hanger (the riskiest). Children were let off school to help get in the harvest each September. And every girl would come to class in the fall with snapshots of a new boyfriend whose name was always Jean-Pierre or Michel or Antoine.
When I was young, we hired southerners to cure the crop for us. The first expert my grandfather hired was a South Carolina hillbilly with overalls and a big felt hat. The story is that he couldn’t even read the numbers on the thermometer–he cured by smell. Growing up, I was to know several of his successors, elderly curemen with deep accents who were always reminiscing about coon hounds and possum hunts. Once one died in his sleep in the tiny one-room cureman’s shack by the kilns, and we had to ship his body home.
I remember my father coming north to get me the year my parents decided I was old enough to work in tobacco harvest. And I remember my sense of excitement and self-importance on the long train ride home, my feeling of leaving childhood behind. All the subsequent summers spent working on the farm run together–one year I worked the boat row (I could run fast enough to catch the horse if it ran away) on the last field gang in the area to use a horse. One year I worked two farms and primed tobacco for forty-two straight days without a break. I remember a Seneca boy who boxed with me behind the kilns one year and swimming at the gravel pit after work and drinking Molson beer evenings at the Hotel Syracuse in Waterford, playing Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Band on the bar jukebox.
But what I remember best is waking up in the mornings before work with my aching, swollen hands curled against my chest, and the terrible pain of the cold dew on my hands late in harvest, those chilly September mornings with the sun just coming up, and the smell of horse manure and sweat and the jingling of the harness, and being so tired that I could drop down in the dirt at the end of a row and sleep for thirty seconds, cradled in the earth, before the boat-driver raced up.↵
- from 1924 to 1963 the world’s best-selling row crop tractors, manufactured by International Harvester; 140 model in production 1958 – 1979.
Quick, G. (2009). International Harvester. Kenthurst, NSW, AUS: Rosenberg.
Pripps. R. (2010). The Big Book of Farmall Tractors. Minneapolis, MN, USA: Voyageur.↵
- Connors, Stompin’ Tom (1971). Tillsonburg. On My Stompin’ Grounds [vinyl record]. Toronto: Boot Records. ↵
I am slain by this bit of dialogue, rich with local cadence, at the start of the video –
man: “Tobacco workers are the happiest workers, eh. Have you noticed that?”
woman: “… I think you’re blinded by the glamour of it all.”
Sweet find, dg.
Amber, I enjoyed your sharp, vivid poems so much, and the photos too. You put us right there. Really happy I met you at John B Lee’s house that evening!
Thank you Marilyn – I’ve always found this specific set of vividly gruelling experiences a challenge to translate to others, and I’m thrilled that you felt brought close. As an ardent admirer of your work, I was likewise so glad to connect in person. 🙂 Hope to see you again soon!
Knowing how well you write at your blog, I’m not at all surprised that your poetry really drew me in Amber.
I know nothing about tobacco growing, but still remember my surprise at passing tobacco drying during the year I spent in South Africa on exchange. I had never considered how it grew or any of the processes involved and thought of it more as man-made than grown.
It was obviously just a normal upbringing for you and many others in your area, but it is so far removed from anything I’ve known, yet you and dg leave me wanting to read more. Beautifully written.
Thanks for coming over from the blog! I greatly appreciate your thoughtful, generous feedback there and here.
Thank you so much for this wonderful find. I worked in tobacco harvest from the ages of eleven to nineteen, starting in 1965. My mother was the cook for a farm in Tillsonburg and I was added as part of a package deal.
This meant leaving our home in Welland and living day by day on the farm, never stepping off it, with no tv or outside connections. Through the summers I suckered, oiled and topped, then worked on the table gang, primed sand leaves and one summer was kiln hanger.
Your poems bring to life that world…the early morning cold and wet..it didn’t matter how you dressed, it rolled down your back…working to the end of endless rows..the dubious glamour of the bikers from Quebec who came to prime…the work day ended when the kiln was full..sometimes that was 8 PM….tobacco poisoning…the brilliant shock of green of fields of tobacco
Kathleen, thank you so much for taking the time to include the richness of your tobacco memories here, and the saturated depth captured in your phrases. Again appreciation to dg for this gathering of knowledges otherwise headed to the vanishing point down those green stalk-and-leaf tunnels.
I am a “retired” Tobacco Farmers Daughter from the Delhi area, and loved re-living the great and not-so-great moments of tobacco season, priming, topping, suckering, and being forced to choose to cook for the gang with my mom, or work in the stripping room with my dad! ( I choose to strip!) We had years of great harvest parties, tragedies, hailed-out-crops, laughter, tobacco stem fights and more. Your witty poetry brought back the happy memories I had harvested from my youth, and made me smile. Thank you !
Stephanie Van De Ven
Amazing that we recall those gruelling times with such affection, and to meet another local girl who was better stripping than in the kitchen. Whaling on each other with suckers and canes was the only way to get through some days; amazing too that there’s only one detached retina in my family history. Steph, thanks so much for connecting! I am very glad to know that these poems resonate with your lived experiences.