Analysis of Farmhand by JAMES K BAXTER
The poem uses the second person narrative immediately – you – which places the reader/listener as an observer of the character. We are invited to observe. The narrator says that you will see – the visual aspect is invoked. It is an act of seeing, observing, or even voyeurism. We are looking into the character’s life without invitation. These acts call upon our perception. ‘You will see’ and then you will draw conclusions. We make judgments depending on the information that is provided for us. When we do this, there are so many times when we make biased, incomplete or misinformed evaluations about people or situations.
The sensory information that is received is what is apparent. These are mostly controlled behaviours. This leads to a discussion on the performativity of his actions. (We will call the main character He from now). What is performativity? The scholar Judith Butler has written extensively on the performativity of gender. In this particular scene, it is not only his gender which he performs. He attempts to project a kind of identity to the world. We portray ourselves to the world around us in certain ways and conform to certain types of behaviour and maybe even trends. Why do we do that? Because we want to be accepted by the people around us. He lights a cigarette, puts on a careless, carefree and aloof attitude and leans against the wall. He cracks jokes with a friend. Would someone engage in the above mentioned activities if you are not comfortable in the environment you’re in? Yes, if they want the observer to believe that they are not afraid, awkward, uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the surroundings. So, I would argue that our character is performing these acts to a certain degree, to appear confident and appealing. This may be more convincing in light of the second stanza.
Before that, imagine him looking out into the secret night! Once again, the act of ‘looking’ is used, this time into something secret and dark; uncertainty and doubt dominates this line. This is a gesture which is usually done when someone is in deep contemplation – one can only imagine the turbulence that is perhaps causing chaos in his mind. Why? Let’s look at the second stanza.
It begins with a conjunction: ‘but’. This connotes a change, a turn, a volta (Italian for turn). This word is crucial to our understanding of the above analysis. It tells us that our observations in the first stanza may be misleading; there is another story behind what is available to our senses. Hence: but.
His attention is elsewhere. These lines capture his desire, his longings and his attraction. It is an unfulfilled desire at this point. Once again, it is his eyes which turn – the act of observing. This time it is the girls who are subjected to his gaze. The phrase ‘eyes turn’ is clearly different to saying ‘looked,’ because there is an obvious sense of gravity given to the dance floor and the girls. ‘Look’ is a verb which connotes that the actor/agent (the character in this instance) has the power over the action of directing his eyes towards something. It is a deliberate choice of will. It is not something done through manipulation or intimidation. But in contrast, ‘eyes turned’ makes him an almost passive participant. It is the ‘eyes’ that ‘turned’. He didn’t turn his eyes. The eyes become the subject (SVO) of that sentence, and are attracted toward the girls. This continuous attraction of his eyes toward the girls indicates his desire. It is rather similar to the secret night: impenetrable, mysterious, uncertain and unfamiliar – yet alluring too. He looks out into both the secret night and the girls, but does not venture into either.
The dance floor signifies a different world for the farmhand, and it appears that he does not feel comfortable in this setting. The girls are drifting: this word is ambiguous and shows the brilliance of the poet in his choice of words. It can describe the act of moving in a languorous manner to slow music; it can also connote something that drifts away (suggesting how the girls or the possibility of courting a girl could be slipping away from him). With the simile comparing the girls to flowers, it could also mean the transience of youth which drifts away without control like the beauty of a flower. The softness, fragility, fragrance and the fleeting nature of girls and their beauty is reminded (all quite stereotypica;). Conjure an image of flowers drifting along the surface of the water, moving away from you. For the farmhand, his object/s of his desire is/are moving out of his reach.
The last two lines present a rather ambiguous point. There is an old wound (a metaphor used to amplify the pain and the traumatic nature of this memory) which the music tears open, very slowly. It is old. Some time has passed, and he seems to have healed from it because the music tears it open. It could be that every time he hears this music the wound opens up, as the traumatic memories of this particular experience re-emerge to the surface of his mind. The music seems to be music in general – music which is played on dance floors; most probably romantic songs. This reveals that the whole set-up of the dance floor and the music is a painful experience for him. The girls may be another reminder about this incident, but the conflict that creates the immense tension within these lines is exactly that – he is strongly attracted toward the girls as he desires them, but there are several things (his traumatic experience which remains ambiguous and his fear of being rejected and feeling of being a misfit as he does not seem naturally comfortable with the surrounding) which prevent him from actualizing his desires.
The first two stanzas focus on his behaviour. The third describes his physical features, zooming in on the character. This stanza reminds us of the elements (sun, rain, earth, wind and the rest) and his struggle against it. It reveals his transformation through his work in the field. The ‘red sun-burnt face’ connotes the difficulty of his labour. He is not concerned, and does not have the luxury to be concerned about his complexion or his appearance – he has to do his work to survive. Hairy hands symbolize rawness and the coarse reference gives an almost primeval and uncivilized sense to the farmhand. The poem asserts that he is not made for dancing or love-making, but it makes us question what exactly the poet means to say. When he uses the word ‘made,’ he is implying that the farmhand and his features are essentially (inherently) not fit for dancing and love-making. This is arguably the way the farmhand perceives himself – he clearly seems to be barred from such spaces as the dance floor where you are required to have certain soft-skills and charms to be successful. It simply is not his forte – he is more at home in the farm with the tractor and the stooks. Since he feels as a complete misfit in such circumstances where grace, charm and other more emotionally refined skills or aptitudes are needed, he may have begun to believe that he is rejected by those spaces in society – he distances himself as evident in the first stanza. The painful incident mentioned is obviously another reason why he feels rejected. He has internalized the idea that he is not meant to enjoy such pleasures as love-making and dancing. On the one hand this may be something which continuous rejection or other unpleasant experiences may have caused, but as we read into the stanzas we do understand that there is a deeper level of psychology which is at play. The farmhand’s own thinking seems to chain him to his isolation. Just like the saying goes: Once bitten twice shy. Rather than treating the rejections or disappointments as separate events which resulted due to particular and specific reasons, he may continue to think that he is the misfit, who does not seem desirable. This sort of thinking may intensify to an extent where he continues to further isolate himself and become used to the familiarity and comfort of being alone – he refuses to take any further risk at socializing spaces which he finds uncomfortable.
The last two lines reduce him to his farm work – he is only good for breaking the earth into waves. On the one hand, it is rather constricting his identity to his occupation; his livelihood. But it also indicates how this seems to have consumed all aspects of his life. In the comfort that the farmhand finds in the farm, he thrives. The poet romanticizes the manner of work of the farmhand in an attempt to portray him in a more humane and relatable light. His hands were made for breaking the tough earth into waves. The earth is solid and in order to sow, the land has to be ploughed. It is his strength which enables him to penetrate the fertile soil to make the production of crops possible. There are sexual resonances in the image of ploughing the land, especially because the poet juxtaposes the image with love-making in the previous line. His love-making or his intimacy is with the soil which he breaks into. He makes the solid soil become like waves – waves are liquid and not as hard as the soil. The plough is a piece of equipment with sharp edges and these can be read as phallic imagery; he wields the plough and prepares the land for the sowing of seed. The line ‘slow-growing as his mind’ may refer to his intelligence, as he is a farmhand, and it may suggest that he is not the brightest, but as he emphasizes in this stanza, he is one of the strongest.
This stanza is full of stereotypically masculine imagery which contrasts with the feminine imagery he attributes to the girls in the second stanza – drifting flowers. Here, he focuses on the rougher texture of the skin, the hairiness of the hands and the aggressive, strength-based task of ploughing. This imagery continues in the last stanza – ‘effortless and strong.’
This stanza amplifies what he desires yet does not receive. The negation makes this clear. Two situations are mentioned. The image of a girl running her hand through his hair is a loving gesture implying intimacy and desire for each other. It is one of companionship, just like walking together mentioned in the next lines. But this is a more private gesture. However, walking with a girl who giggles at his side is a public gesture. This may indicate a desire to be normal, to be accepted and to be rather possessive of the girl he would desire as he is able to display her and their relationship to the outside world. The act of walking with a girl in public and being able to make her giggle also indicates to the farmhand a significant aspect of masculinity. The stereotypical gender imagery used in the poem supports this idea. This begs the question: why does he desire a girl? As the poem argues, on the one hand it is for his own companionship, to abate his loneliness and share his love and desire. But on the other hand, it is to consolidate his masculinity – the idea that he is man enough. Remember, according to Judith Butler, Gender is something we do. It is not an inherent feature of a person. It is something we as individuals in a society learn. It is learnt behaviour – a construct. The ideology of masculinity understood by the farmhand seems to demand that he has ownership of a female to assert his identity as a male.
It may be rather complicated – his desire is for companionship is strong; but he also has a desire to be perceived as masculine and accepted by society for being so. The stereotypical hegemonic masculine understanding is that men are not emotional creatures. Having emotions are seen as a weakness. Sensitivity is seen as a threat to masculinity. Any sign of vulnerability is seen as a serious blow to someone’s masculinity. (These are toxic ideologies which need to be broken, but this seems to be the kind of masculinity the farmhand subscribes to). This is the reason why the word tear appears shrouded in another meaning (to tear something) even when the context is about a painful and traumatic incident. (Before the music tears – Slowly in his mind an old wound open). No tears are allowed to appear on the outside. He stands aloof, cracks jokes and lights a cigarette. The closest any of his actions get to displaying any vulnerable emotion is when he gazes into the night sky. It may easily suggest the swallowing down of tears and withholding of emotional outpouring. Rather than expressing the hurt and pain, these emotions are buried under the guise of masculinity and he drifts into isolation. Back to the point: even though he desires companionship and warmth, stereotypical masculinity demands that he show no warm emotions – he has to appear cool and unaffected by anything.
This coldness works against him as he doesn’t have the confidence to approach the girls either. Therefore, the socialization on hegemonic masculinity and his experiences which make him believe that the world rejects him pushes him toward isolation.
Sunday being mentioned is important as it is a holiday: the Sabbath. People are supposed to rest, be entertained and spend time with family or loved ones. For the farmhand it is clearly a rather awkward and unfamiliar activity. Something that he isn’t made for: he prefers his work. This keeps him occupied. When it is Sunday, he does not have any activity to fill up his empty slots of time. In this vein, the work can also be seen as the existential solution to add meaning to his life (existentialism suggests that life is meaningless and that we make meaning out of the meaningless things). His work has come to define him: who is he? A farmhand. The title of the poem supports this perspective. He is known not by a name, his birthplace, his lineage or anything else – he is known by his occupation: a farmhand. On Sunday he is out of sorts and his farm (Zeugma 😀 ).
In the last line (the word before is instead – we will speak of the conjunctions in the poem later), we get to know that he has not accepted or moved on from his unfulfilled desires. There is a massive slow-growing tree rising within him: a tree of unfulfilled desires. Even though he does not visibly show any sign of awkwardness or inability, in secret, in his dreams (the mind is the canvas upon which your dreams are painted) he establishes an alternative reality. One where maybe his desires are fulfilled – where he has the ability to attract the warmth, the companionship and acceptance he craves. ‘Awkward hopes’ connotes how even in his dreams, his insecurities and perhaps the fear of rejection inhibits his hopes. ‘Envious’ conveys the pain and insecurity in not being able to realize his longings – perhaps not being able to easily find a partner.
P.S. YARN – tell a long or implausible story – “they were yarning about local legends and superstitions” – AUSTRALIAN•NEW ZEALAND
The word implausible stands out – his imagination runs wild into fantasies which he knows and the narrator thinks are difficult to believe and would probably never come to fruition.
The final stanza glamourizes the work of the farmhand, and his masculinity. The temporal change is significant – it is harvest time, when the hard work is done and the results are emerging. Again, we are called to ‘watch him.’ His strength is highlighted in the stanza. The last two lines use a simile, comparing him to a lover, as he listens to the sound of the new tractor engine (which is compared to a song through the use of a metaphor). Romance and love is removed from his human world. There are no girls or women in his world anymore. No one to show him warmth or affection – there no awkward dreams or any attempt to pretend to be cool and hip. He finds these affections (or at least something that replaces these) in the world of the farm: stooks and tractors. He is more confident with inanimate objects which he uses, and is familiar with. The intimacy his hands feel towards the tools is emphasized by the comparison ‘like a lover.’ A note on the verb ‘forking’ is necessary, because it is a rather obvious phallic imagery – a penetrative act of force, done with effortlessness and full display of his masculine strength. It is as if these phrases (or actions) compensate for his inability to ‘obtain’ a woman. There is a mellow melancholy which laces the stanza as we realize that he is in solitude with his instruments in the middle of the field. And this may draw out attention back to the title of the poem: Farmhand – a person who helps out in the farm work. The word hand, as in ‘give me a hand‘ is a metonymy: a part represents something related to it. The hand represents the efforts given by the person. This young lad is defined by the efforts, or the menial labour which he performs in the farm. The farm cannot be separated from his identity. Beyond the farm he seems to have no existence.