It runs through the ridges and valleys
from Sigatoka to Nadola Beach, through
the sugar-hills north of Nandi where cane-cutters
lift their blades (in the distance, they flash
like foil wrappers) and the sugar-farms
of Nautoka where boys brown as gingerbread
work their fathers’ land. They look up
when it passes and sometimes run beside,
machetes swinging, until the last car
rolls around the bend. To the sugar-station
they go with long bundles on their backs,
sticks thin as kindling, ten pennies per ton of cane.
If you saw them coming, shoulders forward,
heads down, you would not be able to tell–
boys or men? Until they dropped their bundles
and stood straight; then you would wonder
at the broad chests and full-grown arms
of the sugar-children. When you stir
your tea, the sugar rises like salt
from the bottom of the ocean and then dissolves.
You add more, the way the first humans, half-ape,
wanted more, tipping the hive to their mouths
for the last drop though bees swarmed and stung
their lips, swollen like the lips of children
who suck and suck on sweets and throw
their pennies on the counter. The engine
runs day and night through fields of sugar
and sugar-towns where no one can sleep
for the rattle, rattle, rattle that keeps them awake,
as you are kept awake, sometimes, on the other side
of the world, by a late-night craving.
The first thing I liked about “The Sugar Cane Train” was its rhythm, the way the train chugged into the poem with a triple beat: There’s a da-da-dum, da-da-dum or dum-da-dum sound behind the words “through the ridges and valleys,” “through the sugar-hills,” and “and the sugar-farms.” The tumbling syntax of that first sentence sends us quickly into the image of the train’s path. There’s lovely phonetic clustering throughout this poem–the best example of this being the line “sticks thin as kindling, ten pennies per ton of cane” (note the repetition of the vowels i and e, and the sounds of t, s, k and hard c). Though I sometimes balk at poems that use the second person (“you”), in this poem it really works. At first “you” is just rhetorical, a figure of speech–“if you saw them”–but then it becomes a real persona, a mask for the speaker of the poem, who did see these boys. The use of “you” is also a way of inviting the reader into the poem, the “you” is the reader, stirring sugar into his or her tea. Then, as the “you” is compared to “the first humans,” it becomes all people, all the way back through time.
On my first read-through, I was struck by the image of “the boys brown as gingerbread”–it seemed in poor taste or even politically incorrect. But then I saw that the image was meant to relate a sort of misty-eyed (Anglo) tourist’s view of the scene. This image was also–like the foil-wrapper machetes–part of the insidious placement of sweet products throughout the poem. The tourist’s-eye-view of things, the nostalgia, is quickly overtaken by a more critical eye: The eye that sees these boys are disturbingly hyperdeveloped–they are children used to the work of adults.
I didn’t know anything about the sugar industry in Fiji, but this poem sent me to the Internet to learn a bit about it. First, of course, I had to sift through the many Web sites devoted to tourism in Fiji, where today you can ride a vintage Sugar Cane Train through the hills past Nadi. As for the island’s history, I learned that in the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, people were brought from India to work as indentured laborers in the cane industry there. With the decline of the indentured laborer system, many families eventually secured leases to plots that they farmed themselves. Now, 100 years later, those leases are expiring, the transport system is breaking down, and the refineries are outdated, thus there are many Fijians of Indian descent who must learn new trades to support themselves. “The Sugar Cane Train” doesn’t tell this story explicitly, but the reality of global markets is there in the final line, your/my/our “late-night craving” for something sweet that keeps the engines of commerce chugging. –Andrea Selch