By Bruce Beaver
To realise the futility of pea-picking,
its broken-backed and bruised-kneed endurance
tested up and down the crowded rows
of squat, green, sparsely bearing bushes;
the side-of-the-finger-splitting ritual,
left and right forefingers and thumbs
cut and bruised bloody, the neck breaking
under the bludgeoning sun, the eyes, ears, nose
and lips crawling with stickybeaking flies;
the stink or perfume (sometimes vaguely both)
of your fellow pickers beside and ahead of you;
to understand why you are doing this at all
day after blistering day for four shillings
a bushel or two kerosene tins full you had to be
either seventeen and desperately
in need of more than two pounds to buy the Collected
Letters of John Keats (that is ten bushels
when you were averaging four bushels a day
for the several days allotted to the picking).
Or perhaps you had to be Aboriginal
and aged from fifteen to sixty-five (male or female)
and be able to knock off ten bushels a day,
bushes and all, when you were supposed to pick
selectively, that is to leave the younger,
smaller pods for a second picking. Or you
might have even needed to be the farmer
himself. Too busy to supervise; keeping up
with most of the Aboriginals, only picking
selectively. Up five chains of bushes
and down five chains of bushes for about
five or six aching hours a day. I say
“futility” for I was too tired each day
to read the book when I had it; the Aboriginals
spent most of their pay on headache engendering wine;
and the farmer, my uncle, always seemed to time
his pickings to coincide with a glutted market.
The whole thing was an exercise in futility.
The old hands had pads of cloth or soft leather tied
to their knees and kept their backs fairly straight.
But if you were seventeen as I was then
and uninstructed you simply agonised
on sore knees shuffling forward boustrophedon
in a more or less literal way, knee-nudging over
soft and lumpy strips of bare earth
getting to feel a tiny twig or pebble,
even the compressed soil’s own modifications
and innate consistencies of texture. The bushes
themselves becoming flayers of raw thumb
and finger-pad, splitters and groovers of nails,
the plump pods’ contents edible but eventually
uninviting. Something like a vestigial
competitive spirit drove one to try and at least
keep up. The dust of earth and leaf-dust crimping
the nostrils, the heat of days turning the tongue
into a strap of hide cleaving to white paste.
The crazy fantasies: would Toulouse-Lautrec
have walked on his half-length legs and have merely plucked
the bushes’ burdens without even looking down?
Would the Aboriginal girl in front have underwear
beneath her sack-like skirt, or a brassiere under
the off-white shirt? No, you saw small breasts
and purple-brown nipples once, and when she saw
you looking she smiled but not invitingly.
The black folk smelt of wood smoke and leaf mould.
I had been told I would smell to them of sour milk
and rancid butter. There were several deodorants
on sale even then but none of us thought to use them.
The girls had thin legs, thin thighs, and almost all
were waistless. But their faces were like a friendly
fruit, large, dark, with rounded features full
and ripe until the faces of my own kind
soured and flattened out to thin diminished
creases, cracks and bumps. At day’s end I
would go to wash and eat and sleep at the farmhouse.
The Aboriginal pickers lolled or squatted
in the big barn’s earth floored musty gloom, gathering
beside the several loaned hurricane lanterns
and about the central fire of sticks on which
a frying pan sputtered blessings on eggs and bacon
and later the communal billy black
as the brew it smokily and sweetly boiled.
Aperitifs of muscat and sweet sherry
were passed from hand to hand in the habitual
surreptitious manner, and the pouches
or battered tins lay open between crossed legs,
rice paper stuck to bottom lips as coarse
tobacco was reduced to fragrant shreds
in hands still acrid with the bushes’ juices.
Then soft guitar accompanied song and softer
talk and sudden swallowed shouts as someone
gulped who should have sipped. And I awake
upon a sheeted bed two hundred feet
away, aware would lie and wonder if
the younger ones would go into the night
and love, as I would have given Keats’s Letters
so to do. And out across the back
verandah of the farm I’d peer into
the starlit dark—so large the distant stars—
while through the barn’s gapped timber walls the lanterns
and the dull glow of the compact cooking fire
showed, even the spark-sized crimson points
of hand-rolled cigarettes would wink and almost
beckon. Now I think the only ones
to leave the barn a while went to excrete.
More privacy was needed than a darkened
cow-bail or a tree’s wide bole to lure
those shyest lovers out. They slept together
in a tribal dream of tiresome work and welcome
food and memoried rest. No taboos but
commonsense and something like distaste
to elevate a white farm to the statute
of home-ground. The elder ones, perhaps, while partly
drunk may have partly scored, but when the last
birds had quietened and the only sound
was cattle foraging about the dry lawn’s
dew-soaked chaff, both barn and farmhouse turned
lights down and out. And then across the cooling
fields came mistily and fragrantly
sleep to all and Alchera’s dreams to some.
Bruce Beaver (1928 – 2004)
Bruce Beaver was born in the Sydney seaside suburb of Manly on 14 February 1928. His childhood and adolescence were unhappy. He wrote his first poem at 17 – a response to the bombing of Hiroshima – and at the same age he began to suffer from what became a life-long problem, manic-depressive illness. He worked in various occupations, travelled in New South Wales and New Zealand, married, and returned to Manly to live and write for most of his life. His first book, Under the Bridge, was published in 1961, and his fourth, a breakthrough volume, Letters to Live Poets, in 1969. In all, he published more than a dozen volumes of poems and ten novels, as well as the autobiographical As It Was (1979).
Risng to prominence in the 1960s, Beaver’s work had a considerable influence on the development on the ‘Generation of 1968’ and the ‘New Australian Poetry’ of the 1970s. Over the course of his career, he won several major Australian literary awards, including the Grace Leven Poetry Prize (1970, for Letters to Live Poets), the C. J. Dennis Prize (1995, for Anima and Other Poems), the Fellowship of Australian Writers Christopher Brennan Award (1982), and the Patrick White Award (1982). In 1991, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia, for service to literature. He died on 17 February 2004.
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I decided to use this poem today because I spent yesterday afternoon helping my neighbor pick peas. We picked what we could before the rain started. My share was the equivalent to two messes of peas. If your unfamiliar with what a “mess of peas” is, it’s the amount of peas needed for a meal. Also, these were pink-eye purple hull peas; probably the most delicious peas ever. I can’t wait to cook them along with some pork chops, and fried cornbread. Served with some sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions. I might even fry some green tomatoes. It will be delicious.