The Workforce

By James Tate b. 1943 James Tate
Do you have adequate oxen for the job?
No, my oxen are inadequate.
Well, how many oxen would it take to do an adequate job?
I would need ten more oxen to do the job adequately.
I'll see if I can get them for you.
I'd be obliged if you could do that for me.
Certainly. And do you have sufficient fishcakes for the men?
We have fifty fishcakes, which is less than sufficient.
I'll have them delivered on the morrow.
Do you need maps of the mountains and the underworld?
We have maps of the mountains but we lack maps of the underworld.
Of course you lack maps of the underworld,
there are no maps of the underworld.
And, besides, you don't want to go there, it's stuffy.
I had no intention of going there, or anywhere for that matter.
It's just that you asked me if I needed maps. . . .
Yes, yes, it's my fault, I got carried away.
What do you need, then, you tell me?
We need seeds, we need plows, we need scythes, chickens,
pigs, cows, buckets and women.
Women?
We have no women.
You're a sorry lot, then.
We are a sorry lot, sir.
Well, I can't get you women.
I assumed as much, sir.
What are you going to do without women, then?
We will suffer, sir. And then we'll die out one by one.
Can any of you sing?
Yes, sir, we have many fine singers among us.
Order them to begin singing immediately.
Either women will find you this way or you will die
comforted. Meanwhile busy yourselves
with the meaningful tasks you have set for yourselves.
Sir, we will not rest until the babes arrive.

James Tate, "The Workforce" from Memoir of the Hawk: Poems. Copyright © 2001 by James Tate. Reprinted with the permission of HarperCollins Publishers Inc, www.harpercollins.com.

Source: Memoir of the Hawk: Poems (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2001)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet James Tate b. 1943

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects Arts & Sciences, Class, Social Commentaries, Jobs & Working, Activities, Humor & Satire

Poetic Terms Pastoral

 James  Tate

Biography

James Tate’s poems have been described as tragic, comic, absurdist, nihilistic, hopeful, haunting, lonely, and surreal. His many poetry collections include The Ghost Soldiers (2008); Worshipful Company of Fletchers (1994), which won the National Book Award; Selected Poems (1991), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award; Distance from Loved Ones (1990); Constant Defender (1983); Viper Jazz (1976); and . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Arts & Sciences, Class, Social Commentaries, Jobs & Working, Activities, Humor & Satire

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Poetic Terms Pastoral

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.