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Brendan Ryan

Factory Boys

White overalls, rubber boots and a hairnet
a red surname sewn into the chest pocket -
I was ready. To sacrifice sunlight
for the punishing noise of steel clanging on steel,
revolving guillotine blades carving lengths of cheese
the pressure on my feet
from eight hours of standing beside a conveyor belt,
checking steel containers clasping blocks of cheddar
shunting past like minutes, each one counted,
then hands whirling over steel in the washroom,
overalls soaked and inventing jokes with the Yank
from Detroit who hates cheese, work and Aussies,
both of us shouting above the clamour
as if opinions ever matter
when the stainless steel is piling up around you.

A week later, the shifts have become ingrained
jobs so familiar, I finish them in my sleep -
checking valves, testing rennet, twisting
stainless steel taps to switch milk between vats.
For the permanents, extended tea breaks are ignored.
The supervisors take walks between 3 and 4am.
The seasonal casuals- hungover, love bites on the neck -
wheel 44-gallon drums of cheese off-cuts
under the crusher. We are paid above the award.

One night, after two weeks on late shift
I fell asleep, clipped a white post, did a 180
on the crest of a hill, shimmied up an embankment
slammed into bluestone rocks, headlights
shining in my sister-in-law's bedroom.
Next week in the tea-room, it barely rated a mention.

We lived for the buzz of our pay slip
dragging each other off as we left the car park,
racing the train to the road crossing.
We were laid off at the end
of each milking season,
our faces turning pasty
as the hunks of cheese
we kicked around the concrete floor.

Brendan Ryan’s “Factory Boys” were first published in Cordite 27: Experience (2008). The guest poetry editor for this issue was Terry Jaensch.

Brendan Ryan

Brendan Ryan grew up on a dairy farm at Panmure in Western Victoria. One of ten children, the themes of farming and family have influenced his poetry for over twenty years. His first chapbook, Mungo Poems, was published by Soup publications in 1997. His first collection of poems, Why I Am Not a Farmer, was published as part of the New Poets’ series by Five Islands Press in 2000. A Paddock in his Head was published by Five Islands Press in 2007 and A Tight Circle was published by Whitmore Press in 2008. His latest collection of poems is Travelling Through the Family, which will be published by Hunter Publishers in 2012. He has had poems and essays published in newspapers and journals such as The Age, Australian Book Review, Meanjin and Heat. He has had poems published in the Best Australian Poetry series (Black Inc.) and The Best Australian Poems series (U.Q.P). He has been awarded three Australia Council grants and in 2008 was awarded a Varuna Longlines residency. A Paddock in his Head was shortlisted for the 2008 ACT Poetry Prize. He lives in Geelong and teaches English at a secondary college there..

A Typical Day At Work 

It is a ten-minute drive to work through a leafy suburb, which also takes me over a single lane bridge where drivers have to wait for each other before they can pass over the bridge--a great exercise in democracy in the early hours of each day. Once at work, I walk up to the school library, collect my copy of The Age newspaper, glance at the headlines and front-page articles, and make my way to my staffroom. I am lucky to have a desk that overlooks a lawn and small garden of Clonard College where I teach English and Religion in the lower years of secondary school.

Once I have worked out that the day’s lessons are planned, photocopying is done, school emails have been checked, and other teachers who sit nearby have been chatted with, it is off to the classroom. What happens in the classroom varies from week to week, but a lot of the teaching involves explaining different ways of writing, be they essay writing, poetry, reflective writing, and/or short story writing of 100 or 600 words. There is also a lot of helping students within the class, walking around to their tables to offer help, and having a word to the students who may be distracted or want to muck around. We have two 50-minute lessons, which start at 8:50 and continue until morning recess at 10:35. Period 3 begins at 11:00 and period four ends at 12:40 when it is lunchtime. Twice a week I do yard duty for a ten-minute interval. The afternoon periods begin at 1:35 and the teaching day ends at 3:15.

At the end of each day I decide what work needs to be taken home and what can stay until the next day. I usually have to pick up my children from their primary school straight after I finish, so I don’t have a lot of time to hang around after school. I mark essays and other school work each weekend and sometimes twice a week. Throughout the day I will have many short informal meetings or chats with teachers and usually correspond with parent inquiries as well.