Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Oh Dirty River by Helen Lehndorf

The town where I grew up
was small, ugly and smelled
like burning blood.

Most of the dads and 
a lot of the mums and
heaps of the big brothers and sisters 

worked at the Freezing Works.

Thousands of cows and sheep 
and even a few hundred pigs 
would get trucked in, slaughtered,
chopped up and packaged 
in cling film each day.

The burning-blood smell 
came from the incinerator
where they would burn
the bits left over.
Though, some of it got pumped 

right into the river
which ran through the town.

In our town, 
people called the works
‘The University’ 

because it was where most of us
ended up going after we left school.
People also used to
call our town ‘Lavender City’ 
because of the burned-flesh stink.
So you can’t say
we didn’t have a sense of humour.

Yeah. You could make a joke 
about it. But only if you’re
from there, eh?

Otherwise, you’re just
getting smart.

Editor: Tim Jones

Credit note: "Oh Dirty River" was first published in Kaupapa: New Zealand poets, world issues, edited by Hinemoana Baker and Maria McMillan (Te Whanga-nui-a-Tara: Development Resource Centre, 2007), and is included in Helen Lehndorf's poetry collection The Comforter (Wellington: Seraph Press, 2011). "Oh Dirty River" is reproduced by permission of the author, Helen Lehndorf, and the publisher, Seraph Press.

Tim says: I like "Oh Dirty River" for a number of reasons, one of which is autobiographical: I spent part of my childhood in another freezing works town, Mataura. My Dad worked at the New Zealand Paper Mills plant which was directly across the Mataura River from the freezing works, and that smell of burned flesh Helen describes in this poem was all too familiar to me as I walked or biked to visit him.

A few years later, I had a Varsity holiday job that involved measuring the paper mill's effluent stream. That took me down to the riverbank, where, opposite me, I could see the blood-rich, blood-red untreated freezing works effluent that burst from the cliff on which the freezing works stood and plumed into the river, adding a red stain to the multi-coloured stains produced by the paper mill. There were some very large eels in that river.

But I also love Helen's poem because it catches both the matter-of-factness of life in a small town that makes its living from the death of thousands of animals, and the half-proud defensiveness of anyone who's grown up in such a town and heard it mocked by the rest of the country. It may be a dump, we think to ourselves - but it's our dump.

After you have read "Oh Dirty River", check out the other Tuesday Poems in the sidebar!

Tim Jones is a Wellington author, poet, editor and anthologist. His most recent book is poetry collection Men Briefly Explained (IP, 2011). He is currently, with P.S. Cottier, co-editing The Stars Like Sand, an anthology of Australian speculative poetry that is due for publication in 2014. You can find out more on Tim's blog Books in the Trees.


Jennifer Compton said...

great stuff - close to the bone

lillyanne said...

Yeah, I also love it for the in your face acceptance that makes you re-evaluate the description as you read it. It's a very good poem, I think.

Penelope said...

Tim's comment that the eels were big reminded me of a scene in The Tin Drum, where eels push through a horse's head. This very strong poem should not be read before breakfast.

I love the gravedigger's humour in it as well.

Tim Jones said...

Thanks for your comments, Jennifer, lillyanne and Penelope! The tone of this poem is so similar to my own thoughts about growing up in Mataura that it makes me wonder if all residents of freezing works towns have more than a little in common.

Anonymous said...

Thank you all for your lovely comments! What a gift to read after a busy day.
x Helen Lehndorf

Helen McKinlay said...

I can smell this poem when I read it.
reminds me of my childhood too. But the freezing works were located at the bottom of Ngauranga Gorge in those days so not actually in the village of Johnsonville. I love the words burning-blood.Very true but also original and extremely powerful. Thanks tim and Helen for sharing this.

Helen Lowe said...

Excellent poem and commentary! I also like the way it builds on Jennifer Compton's 'Palmy" from last week, which is also a "place" poem.

Keith Westwater said...

Very evocative - and I didn't grow up in a freezing works town, though the Westfield Abbotoir wasn't far away, so I now have difficulty going to the mall. Thanks Helen and Tim.

Cattyrox said...

Loved this - I lived in 'Abbatoir Town' -so not a freezing works, but this resonated. I understand the ownership thing, too, not that town but another where I worked with inspired a stubborn loyalty.

Ben Hur said...

Good poem. Thanks, Tim. I started my education at age 5 at St Joseph's primary school in Waitara, north Taranaki, another Freezing Works town. I think they've since closed the freezing works there which was a big economic blow to Waitara and then a double insult, they diverted the highway to bypass Waitara.

AJ Ponder said...

Great Choice Tim - and I think the final line resonates - no matter where you grew up :)

Harvey Molloy said...

Such a strong songlike quality in the poem--it reads like a lyric and there's much to consider with each reading. I feel that the poet has escaped the town but is still foreever tied there.

Harvey Molloy said...

That's meant to be 'forever'!

Tim Jones said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone! It's good to know the poem struck such a chord with people - and interesting how many of us have a freezing work or an abbatoir somewhere in our past.

Just don't get me started on the smell of tanneries...

Rachel Fenton said...

I love the humour and acceptance in this poem, and the bittersweet (self?)acknowledgement of "smart" as a sort of derogatory term aimed at those who reject that way of life.

Michelle Elvy said...

Great pace and tone in this poem. I like the simplicity of it -- as Tim points out, the matter-of-fact attitude of the narrator. I like what Penelope says about The Tin Drum, too -- icky but true connection! Those eels...

Glad to come to this party somewhat late.

Urdu Shayari said...

this is nice poetry