Ray Givans

Canning Factory

Ray Givans

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Nothing matched the drudgery of ‘strapping off’,

the act of sitting facing another guy

and clutching a leather strap which resembled

a weightlifter’s back support. We caught steaming

tins that bounced and coughed off a conveyor belt

and jiggled on a metal tray between us.

I made sweeping motions like a fisherman

casting a net, and gathered no more than ten,

gently transferred them to a one-tonne crate

and set them down like new-borns; one slip, the cans

might dent, bringing a supervisor’s sour breath

down on my neck. My partner and I took turns

to strap as legions of cans relentlessly

drove forward; always the din of their marching,

always the danger of a surprise attack:

perhaps leaping over the raised edges

to agitate our leather-protected laps.

Three breaks, only, were officially sanctioned,

so we found ways to escape that twelve-hour stretch:

when steam ceased puffing from the machinery

and the line stuttered and hiccupped to a halt

men in brown boiler suits scampered down the line

clutching bags of rattling tools, tightening this,

screwing that. We read sabotage on their faces.

A large unit was deployed in floor sweeping

and shovelling up fruit and veg. detritus.

Overmanned, we saw them slouch against the shafts

of their brushes. The ‘O’ of their yawns were lost

amongst the background of factory clamour.

Their eyes searched for pinholes of light in the roof.

Thinking back, one of their party, John Balmer,

relieved me most from my work station, perhaps

noting our brotherhood of long hair and beard.

One day I heard a crash and crunch of metal.

A chain had broken on a quarter-tonne crate

and the bottom of the cage had struck Balmer.

The young man writhed on the wet factory floor,

his screams heard above the onward-marching cans.

I froze, stared at the ripped skin below his knee.

The wound bloomed as two wine-coloured peonies.

Around him pistons hissed and tins perspired.

Balmer never again appeared on the floor. 

Though we heard reports from beyond the works’ gate,

back then I was keeping an eye on blue skies

over Naxos and Mykonos.      Years down the line

it’s often on my mind that serrated bone,

the sweat that started in my armpits, ran down

my spine. We kept working, reined in the next clutch.

Ray Givans

Ray Givans has been published in five poetry pamphlets. His first full poetry collection, Tolstoy in Love, was published in 2009 by Dedalus Press, and was shortlisted for the Strong award for best first collection by an Irish poet for that year. His most recent collection, The Innermost Room was published by Salzburg Poetry Press, at the University of Salzburg.