Sugar by Sheila Stewart
by Steven McCabe
Dust rises off the hot low veldt. Vast sugarcane estates: the only irrigated
land. Wide lush green fields sprout a million tiny sprinklers. The cane is
ready, burnt to make it easier to cut. Flame sweeps the fields, fierce as a
forest fire. The air black soot, a flurry of ash falls miles away, drifts in
doorways, a line of soot runs across the table in our classroom Monday
morning, mirroring the crack in the roof’s peak.
How I love a dusting of sugar over a slab of chocolate cake, a script of
Give me brown sugar, white sugar, cubes and icing sugar, caster sugar,
sugar daddy, sugar mummy, sugar baby, sugar bear, sugar-beet, sugar
bowl, sugared and sugary, sugar plum fairy, Shake Sugaree.
Long, open cane trucks, chains along the sides, drive past the auto-
wreck’s Jesus is Coming, into the refugee settlement, collect workers
early in the morning, return them dirty, tired at day’s end. The cane cutters
earn a little more, dressed in layers for protection, sooty as chimney
sweeps. Our students tell us, Cane can cut you. Snake can get you in the
Monthly rations: maize, beans, salt, sometimes dried fish, and a little
One more lump of sugar, please.
Simon learned English fast: homeland, refugee, truck. Hot and cold. Love
and hate. Past, present, future. Simon cut cane. He told us of his last trip
on the back of a cane truck. Returning to the settlement one black night,
the truck broke down at the side of the road. People got out, lay down and slept, waiting for another truck. Simon watched a lorry full of oranges
crash into the cane truck, knocking it over onto the sleeping workers,
pinning the dead and injured to the ground. The sugary smell of oranges
but none to eat. The truck carried on, cutting through the night taking the oranges safely to Durban.
Sheila Stewart has two poetry collections, The Shape of a Throat (Signature Editions) and A Hat to Stop a Train (Wolsak and Wynn). She co-edited The Art of Poetic Inquiry (Backalong Books). Sheila’s poetry has been recognized by such awards as the gritLIT Contest, the Pottersfield Portfolio Short Poem Contest, and the Scarborough Arts Council Windows on Words Award. She teaches in Equity Studies, Women and Gender Studies, and the Writing Centre at New College, University of Toronto. ‘Sugar’ is from The Shape of a Throat.
Thank you, Steve. I really like your images and how they work with the poem.
And thank you Sheila. I really enjoyed the poem and your themes and images.
I’m intrigued with how the images and words work together creating a different kind of space or form. The poem has been opened up and given new life. I like the circular motif, the spoon, the way light and colour are refracted.
Thank you Sheila for these further thoughts. The idea of a different space or form is interesting. Strikes me as a sort of cinematic hybrid. A slow motion cinematic hybrid. Elements of silent film and the storybook…
The visual ‘reading’ (& interpretation) of your themes was very intuitive and (as a poet) I saw a lot of circles in what you were doing.
Such a rich poem to work with. Thank you for this generous gift.
Thanks for visiting the page!
all right! this is leaving me breathless in a kind of psychic way you understand…a masterpiece…I’ll have to get back to you there’s so many levels of words and meaning and beauty…made my evening Steven…
Thank you very much John. There must be some synchronicity you are responding to in a psychic way. That’s exciting to hear. Wish I knew more. I’m glad to hear the levels of words and images have affected you in this way! thanks for a generous response.
Such stunning images!
This is a lovely pairing! Beautiful artwork from both of you.
Thank you Kathleen.
I haven’t much of a sweet tooth, but we also wouldn’t have wine without sugar, so I consider myself an advocate. It’s also deep winter and the oranges and greens in this post, Steven, are like visual manna. Juxtaposed with reading Sheila’s poem,however, I realize that before that first sip of wine I need to bow my head in acknowledgement towards the Southern hemisphere.
The combined artistry here is deeply layered. It evokes many emotions. Thought alone seems futile in encompassing all that is presented, all that is necessary for a social consciousness. Acknowledgement, though, is a beginning. So thank you, both of you….
Thank you, Jana.
Thank you Jana for your letter, which feels like a poem, and for various thoughts you suggest.
The oranges and greens wanted to announce themselves in response to the poem. ‘…like visual manna…’
Thank you for this generous thought.
We’ll give the Southern hemisphere credit for these colours.
You have introduced the words wine, manna, Southern hemisphere, and social consciousness into the collaboration.
So now you’re part of it.
& thank you for your thoughts about the (combined) work being deeply layered.
Layers inspire layers….
So many impressions and thoughts about this. I’m trying to learn your visual language but it doesn’t come easily to this writer, especially when it accompanies the equally complex language of poetry. Had to think about it a good while. But I’ll give it a stab….
I wondered about these paradoxes:
What to make of the juxtaposition of the hard, geometric edges and shapes among the organic ones? Corporate violations of life while professing to serve and preserve its sweetness?
Sharp white arrows of focused light piercing the sky, heading toward Earth/Soul on a trail of smothering black ash and soot? And all the while, humanity stands by blindly, unconsciously, loving life’s sweetness, hating its cost? Finding it excruciatingly difficult to integrate these opposites into a palatable, viable whole? As in the 7th image?
White, yellow, orange, green, colors of light and growing life, all founded on and thriving from and living amidst and wounded by the blackness of the dark, fertile, killing underground hell of unconsciousness?
So how’m I doing? Did I come anywhere near your intentions, or is that not the point? Actually, I already know the answer. Public art is about effecting the viewer, not trying to fathom the mind of the artist. But I can’t help but try.
This one effected me very much.
Thank you for these interpretations of the visuals Jeanie. And your impressoins are all completely true. Not only because you thought of them viscerally or emotionally, but also because you contextualized your thoughts as words.
It’s a fascinating process: The poet deals with subject matter in a poetic manner: Images, history, socio-economics, personal experience, empathy, with voice, shapes, colours, Well, there is so much in this poem.
Then the visual artist approaches the work in an intuitive manner. Designs develop in a form of symbiosis with the themes of the text.
Then the viewer brings her wealth of life experience to bear on the visuals in relationship to the poem and writing down her thoughts creates a new body of text expanding the collaboration. So you have added a new layer of richness to the experience with themes and suggestions and cross-references. This is very much appreciated and enjoyed.
I often have to figure out what I’ve done after the fact. Rivers of connection with the poem seem to flow underground.
‘…hard, geometric edges and shapes among the organic ones?’
I looked up photos of sugar cane plantations shocked by the idea white granular powder one step removed with the taste & delicacy suggested ‘can cut you’ & with snakes ‘can get you.’ The juxtapositions of speed and interjection with sharp edges perhaps manifests such tragic irony.
I love your mythical/mystical thoughts about the white arrows of focused light. Maybe I was thinking about the truck accident being a metaphor (within the poem) for the entire ‘delivery system’ of flavour and taste. I find the colour orange with its round shape introduced here a fascinating echo or shadow of the fires burning the fields. And it reminded me of the sun. The more I think about this poem the more I realize its complexity. Your thoughts about integrating opposites is very interesting because in the back of my mind I was seeing a ‘moist & humid’ surrealism as well as Kandinsky’s spiritual abstraction.
‘…thriving from and living amidst and wounded by the blackness of…’
I think the ash, soot, irrigated land/soil, and one ‘black night’ in the poem impressed a rich darkness upon me. Also the contrast of all this soot and ash with the ‘dusting’ of sugar. I don’t know if I consciously thought of unconsciousness (!) but you know in a way I might have because the history of colonial exploitation & sugar was ‘informing’ my mood/
The ‘Jesus is Coming’ allusion joined to ‘autowreck’ may have created the ‘communion wafer – white sun – sugar sun’ image.
I hope I replied clearly. Sometimes things run together. I seek to create a parallel narrative to the poem and not so much illustrate it but embody its spirit. There was a lot of richness in this poem to embody. Thank you for inspiring me to look into this more ‘consciously’ thoughtfully.
Thank you Richard.
One of your best, Steven. I feel like I am witnessing something real, an artistry of poem and image that moves through time in ways that encompass an enormous space where anger and expression exist but no resolution comes, and that within sensibilities at the other end of the spectrum of a truck of oranges crashing into a stalled truck that kills so many on the roadside. Sort of can’t explain tonight. Just very moved. Thank you.
Thank you Brenda. I appreciate these thoughts. I’m glad it feels like something real. I think open-ended or ‘without resolution’ is sometimes the clearest way to create an image that doesn’t interfere with the words. It is sort of a silent cinema -type opportunity offered by this digital format. I enjoy how your comment juxtaposes ‘moves through time’ with ‘encompass.’ thanks again.