The Lease by Mathew Henderson
Reviewed by Lisa Zerkle

by Lisa Zerkle

The Lease  by Mathew Henderson (2012, Coach House Books) $15.95 Paper ISBN: 9781552452639
The Lease
by Mathew Henderson
(2012, Coach House Books)
$15.95 Paper
ISBN: 9781552452639

Much has been said about the impact of fracking on the environment.  Little has been said about the effects on the workers who do the fracking.  Mathew Henderson’s poetry collection The Lease, explores the unrelenting toll of this dangerous and dirty work as it plays out in the oil fields of Saskatchewan.  This is not an environmental screed, but a clear-eyed depiction of real life on the job. The young, male protagonist is new to the business, unaccustomed to tending the “iron world” in “three-day pieces” — the time spent setting up, drilling, and moving the rig to the next rural site. The twelve-hour day (or night) shifts are deafening and repetitive, but roughnecks with missing digits and burn scars are reminders of what happens if attention drifts.  “Bubbles,” one of several excellent character poems, examines “a man from a world without children” who “had no soft voice inside him.”  “Dave Talks About ‘This One Guy’” and “Bill,” stronger for their placement next to each other in the book, comment on men who “didn’t have a choice, because that’s what work is, right?” Oil field wages are better than pumping gas or working on the kill floor in the slaughter house, but the work takes its toll.  “Rig In,” a standout poem about the physical nature of the work, explains:

You do not understand this.  It is not math or language,
nor the migratory pattern of geese to be charted.
This is muscle lust, fucking with your eyes closed,
the body’s quiet genius.  You cannot map it:  the elbow
twist, wrist snap, wrench tug. You give up
history, science, all the words you know in French.

Loss of words and meaning in the clangor is a recurring theme. The stark poem “What You Do” ends with “as if (words) held any power here.” Men, wildlife and landscape are afterthoughts in the battle between oil flow and drill rig — both portrayed as powerful beings with wills of their own.  And to what end? In the dreamlike ten-part poem “Migrant,” the protagonist visits the city —the benefactor reaping the spoils of the battle—but “no one sees” the pumps and “no one hears” the hiss of the gas lines.  This is hard to fathom considering the very real chance of injury or death each time the men show up for work.

Their harsh role as wordless shepherds of machinery exacts a price on the men. Henderson tells their stories and that of the protagonist with honesty and clarity.  This is a readable and important book — all the more remarkable for being Henderson’s debut.

In this age of print-on-demand, mention must be given to the physical book here.  It was printed in Canada on locally made, responsibly sourced paper using a vintage offset litho press.  As much craft went into the production of the book as the writing of it.


Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 16, Issue 3.


Lisa ZerkleLisa Zerkle’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Broad River Review, Tar River Poetry, The Ledge, Charlotte Viewpoint, Sixfold, poemmemoirstory, Crucible, Main Street Rag and Literary Mama, among others.   She has served as President of the North Carolina Poetry Society, community columnist for The Charlotte Observer, and editor of Kakalak.

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