Bright Leaf

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.

Ellen Bryant Voigt, “Bright Leaf” from The Lotus Flowers (New York: W.W. Norton, 1983). Copyright © 1987 by Ellen Bryant Voigt. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Source: Bright Leaf (1987)
More Poems by Ellen Bryant Voigt