Bright Leaf

by Ellen Bryant Voigt

Ellen Bryant Voigt

Like words put to a song, the bunched tobacco leaves
are strung along a stick, the women
standing in the August heat for hours—since first light—
under the pitched tin roof, barefoot, and at their feet
the babies, bare-assed, dirty, eating dirt.
The older children hand the leaves from the slide,
three leaves at a time, stalks upright, three handers
for each stringer, and three more heaped canvas slides
waiting in what little shade there is: it’s ten o’clock,
almost dinnertime. They pull the pails of cold lunch
and Mason jars of tea out of the spring
when they see the farmer coming from the field, their men
stripped to the waist, polished by sweat and tired as mules.
By afternoon, the loose cotton dresses, even
the headrags are dark with sweat.
Still their fingers never miss a stitch,
though they’re paid not by the stick but by the day,
and the talk—unbroken news of cousins and acquaintances—
unwinding with the ball of twine, a frayed snuff-twig
bouncing on one lip, the string paying out
through their calluses, the piles of wide green leaves
diminishing, until the men appear with the last slide
and clamber up the rafters of the barn
to line the loaded sticks along the tiers. It’s Friday:

the farmer pays with a wad of ones and fives,
having turned the mule out to its feed and water,
hung up the stiffened traces and the bit. He checks
again the other barns, already fired, crude ovens
of log and mud where the crop is cured;
in that hot dry acrid air, spreads a yellowing leaf
across his palm, rolls an edge in his fingers,
gauging by its texture and its smell
how high to drive the fire.
His crew is quiet in the pickup truck—did you think
they were singing? They are much too tired to even speak,
can barely lick salt from the back of a hand, brush at flies,
hush a baby with a sugartit. And the man
who owns this land is also tired.
Everyday this week he’s meant to bring home pears
from the old tree by the barn, but now he sees
the fruit has fallen, sees the yellow jackets feeding there.
He lights a Lucky, frames a joke for his wife—he’ll say
their banker raised a piss-poor field this year.
And she will lean against the doorjamb
while he talks, while he scrubs his hands at the tin basin
with a split lemon and a pumice stone, rubs them raw
trying to cut the gummy resin, that stubborn
black stain within the green.

The Lotus Flowers (New York: W.W. Norton, 1983)

Ellen Bryant Voigt's picture

Ellen Bryant Voigt is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently Headwaters: Poems (W. W. Norton, 2013); Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006 (W. W. Norton, 2007); Shadow of Heaven (W. W. Norton, 2002), which was a finalist for the National Book Award; Kyrie (W. W. Norton, 1995), a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award; Two Trees (W. W. Norton, 1992); The Lotus Flowers (W. W. Norton, 1987); The Forces of Plenty (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1983); and Claiming Kin (Wesleyan University Press, 1976).

Last updated December 24, 2014