‘The Workforce’ – A Poem by James Tate

How often do you find yourself in negotiation with management and suppliers to acquire the resources necessary to meet your objectives?

In the poem ‘The Workforce’, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning poet, James Tate creates a dialog about the ‘resources’ needed to complete a job. It’s up to your imagination to visualize what these workers are trying to accomplish. To perform their task they need a variety of supplies…and women. We are left with the question: Are the women motivation to work or are the women workers who will help complete the task?

In a 2006 Paris Review interview Tate described his process: “I love to take a poem, for instance that starts with something seemingly frivolous or inconsequential and then grows in gravity until by the end it’s something very serious.”

The Workforce

Do you have adequate oxen for the job?
No, my oxen are inadequate.
Well, how many oxen would it take to do an adequate job?
I would need ten more oxen to do the job adequately.
I’ll see if I can get them for you.
I’d be obliged if you could do that for me.
Certainly. And do you have sufficient fishcakes for the men?
We have fifty fishcakes, which is less than sufficient.
I’ll have them delivered on the morrow.
Do you need maps of the mountains and the underworld?
We have maps of the mountains but we lack maps of the underworld.
Of course you lack maps of the underworld,
there are no maps of the underworld.
And, besides, you don’t want to go there, it’s stuffy.
I had no intention of going there, or anywhere for that matter.
It’s just that you asked me if I needed maps. . . .
Yes, yes, it’s my fault, I got carried away.
What do you need, then, you tell me?
We need seeds, we need plows, we need scythes, chickens,
pigs, cows, buckets and women.
Women?
We have no women.
You’re a sorry lot, then.
We are a sorry lot, sir.
Well, I can’t get you women.
I assumed as much, sir.
What are you going to do without women, then?
We will suffer, sir. And then we’ll die out one by one.
Can any of you sing?
Yes, sir, we have many fine singers among us.
Order them to begin singing immediately.
Either women will find you this way or you will die
comforted. Meanwhile busy yourselves
with the meaningful tasks you have set for yourselves.
Sir, we will not rest until the babes arrive.

James Tate, “The Workforce” from Memoir of the Hawk: Poems. Copyright © 2001 by James Tate

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