Sugar by Sheila Stewart
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.