All night they have been touching meat,
thrusting trolleys stuffed with cheek,
shoulder, ear and leg, and now the day’s
come back to life they’re closing
Smithfield market; sewing up the partly
butchered, washing off the blood.~~ available online at Butcher’s Dog
In his interview with the litmag, Challis explained time, and the continuity of sales through decades and even centuries – the Smithfield area to which he refers (in England, not Virginia) has been a market center since medieval times – was his primary motivation in writing this poem. He has a nice symmetry going on: the butchers work by night, he works by day, and they’re both covered in blood at the end of a shift; as the butchers strip their coveralls, the ad exec buttons up for a meeting, his suit serving the same purpose as the work clothes. Advertising is merely the most recent layer of commercial archeology.
The poem’s focus shifts as the speaker first looks out over the market, then contemplates his own role, then brings them together: “The past lowers like a theatre set.”
I’m a little uncertain about who, in the ad office, is doing the butchering, and who is being butchered. I think the adman is carving up images (the language conveys a great deal of sexuality, as well as violence and coercion: thrusting, stuffed, shoulders, cheeks, legs) to sell to the clients, who will sell whatever it is they sell to the consumer who believes the right car will restore his manhood, or the right shoe will land Mr. Right. But just as the butchers are not untouched by their process, so the adman is bloodied at the end of his day.
By fortuitous coincidence, I happened across a child’s play set, a sort of dollhouse version of a butcher shop, from the 1850’s, pictured above; it seems to mesh perfectly with the poem. There’s even blood on the floor. Seems both quaint and gruesome, somehow. We’ve come a long way since then, separated ourselves from the process by which steaks and hamburgers magically appear in plastic wrap in the supermarket. But someone still wields a knife at some point. And I do love a nice juicy cheeseburger.