“Cannery, Hood River” by Janice Gould

As I noted yesterday, I really like poems with a sense of place, which is why I boughtDeer Drink The Moon: Poems of Oregon. I also mentioned that I didn’t think all the poems really had a strong sense of place. Although I’ve driven by the cannery in Hood River countless times while driving to and from Mt. Hood, I didn’t get much sense of the place in “Cannery, Hood River” by Janice Gould. I suspect there are more canneries in Gould’s native California than there are in Oregon, and the poem could have taken place in any cannery anywhere in the world.

So, I was a little surprised when reviewing poems I’d marked to re-read and study in more depth that it turned out to be one of my favorites, as did poet Janice Gould who barely qualifies as a Oregon poet since she was a visiting college poet for three years. Nevertheless, it was a moving poem, even if it focused more on character than place.

In September, the Bartletts were trucked
from the orchards and dumped into bins
that crested with ripening fruit.

We stood for hours by our machines
as the harvest jostled by on conveyors, timed
our movements to the rhythm of the steel

peelers, feeding the cups that grabbed the pears—
six at a time—clamped them tight,
skinned, slit, and sent them to the next

group of women who sorted the halves
from the bits and quarters, trimmed the pieces
of excess hide. When the noon whistle blew,

we broke for lunch in the company cafeteria,
sat at the square tables, downed our chili,
complained about men, work, our pitiful pay
for which we were grateful, nonetheless.

On days it didn’t rain, my friends and I escaped
to the grassy slope near the county library,
ate apples, dozed in the Indian Summer sun.

We could hear the tugs on the Columbia pushing
their freight of logs or grain, and sometimes
a sailboat slipped past, tacking down the river

to the Pacific. I felt the pull of a current
in my own blood, and curiosity welled in me
about what lay beyond where I could see—

but when the blast of the signal came at one,
we’d return to work, don our aprons, make haste
to our peelers at the back brick wall.

Against the din of voices, clank of cans,
and whir of machines, we stood—
guarding our unfulfilled dreams.

Thankfully I’ve never worked in a cannery, though I did work on a very similar assembly line when I worked at an oxygen plant filling cylinders to pay for college. The cylinders come off the line rapidly, and you have no choice but to keep up with the line. It’s back-breaking, soul-crushing work.

A lunch break, if you got one, was a welcome relief . Of course, we complained about women where I worked, not men. I don’t remember a lot of positive talk in the rather barren lunchroom, but as much as workers griped I don’t remember anyone quitting while I was there, either. It was a job, and what can you expect from that kind of job but money to pay the bills.

Hood River is a small, rural community. I imagine many of the workers, particularly those in low-paying jobs, are drawn by the river, dreaming of a better job 60 miles down the river in Portland. Filling cylinders in an oxygen plant certainly convinced me to stick with my college studies, knowing I wanted a better life than I could find there.

Americans bemoan the loss of industrial jobs, and perhaps rightfully so, but factory workers often dreamed of escaping those jobs for better ones. My job was a stepping stone to a better future, but many of my fellow workers were still there years later when the plant was replaced by a newer, more automated one that required fewer workers. You have to wonder how many of them had their “unfulfilled dreams” drowned out by “the din of voices, clank of cans/ and whir of machines.”