No 13 - January 2001
For My Father
At first, little outcrops were quarried.
Small industries developed.
Coal began to be used instead of charcoal to smelt iron.
canals, replacing packhorses.
Simultaneously, the enclosures took place; the peasants, already weakened by agricultural depression, flooded into the new industrial areas. Early photographs show pigs and poultry scrabbling around the walls of what really amount to little smallholdings, cobbled together in alleyways and streets; women wearing leather aprons, girls in smocks and broad-brimmed hats.
Coal: there were 3 major faults underlying the area; the southern band, Dudley and Clent, was a 30ft-thick seam, extremely rich in iron ore. ‘Wenlock’ or ‘Dudley’ limestone, known as ‘Crog-balls’, was a greenish limestone which looked like lenses, formed from masses of the skeletons of tiny ‘life-forming organisms’.
As my father’s short-term memory fades, his recall of long-ago events increases in brilliance. He lives for a moment in a football game, played on an old potato-field and they used to run dogs and hunt rabbits there; barrels of pickles in my grandmother’s grocery shop and rabbits hanging from the ceiling.
“Florrie! Florrie!” (who was Florrie?) he shouts from his hospital chair.
“They’d better watch out for that railway line. It’s alright now but it’s going to subside….”
Quarrying: bone-lime-ridges, stretching above the Midland Plain, dividing the watersheds of the Trent and Severn; this is the foundation stone of industrial Britain. And fireclay: Stourbridge, Quarry Bank, Brierley Hill and Lye, producing the finest glass in the world. Upper Gornal and Gornal Wood made ‘incomparable’ furnace-linings.
One of the furthest points from the sea in the whole of Britain, yet here the heaviest anchors were forged as well as lighthouse lamps and boilers for ships.
Elihu Burnett, US Consul to Birmingham wrote, in 1869:
“The sublimest battle-scenes ever enacted on earth; ten thousand Titans were essaying to breach heaven with a thousand mortars, each charged with a small red-hot hill.”
Words are never metal, never blood. He’s sleeping, ‘silent as a baby’, fatter now than he has been. Bright new blood comes into his cheeks with a memory or an action, the squeeze of a hand. A warm hand, and somewhere inside himself he sweeps the leaves aside, of blood and metal, money or brick. He mutters a house, he murmurs a railway line, subsiding. Metal of money, erections. Leaves of factories, night-shifts, days and men.
You notice the old on the streets like never before, the ailments and the qualities of everyone - he’s overweight, she’s overanxious, she has a terrible limp. You listen to neighbourly gossip of kidneys, or the transplant of a vein from heart to leg. And this is the Dragon Year - a train crash, a plane bombing. Where is the Self, which voice of this dying man?
Leaves round the roots of trees, like leather, or stained glass crimson, but never like blood.
The fresh blood of the leaves that blow in the head. Gone now is the talking pain and the skull under document skin. No funny little jokes to make him smile, nor any recognitions. Now he’s private, cleaning his karma, wiping the tapes, cathecting.
In Baggeridge Woods an ancient beech, shattered and blackened, is still, compared to others, a sprig - the whole thing creaking, hanging there on the wind and the sharpened sun. Some scripts are cut in its bright green side, say “1917” and “M&J”: signatures, expanding and dissolving in the century’s swell, ripples and scripts of its growth.
The body is full of tunnels, fossils and paintings. I was born on the edge of a quarry, ‘the Wren’s Nest’, a limestone escarpment with council-houses, tilting now and cracking, labyrinth of fleshlight.
Dad, you are on the edge now, of not-being.
Come into the circle, let me help you find the words, help you to spell.
Tell me about the photos, you in your suit with the wide lapels and Oxford bags on holiday, arm in arm with Mom. Very fashionable! What was the love like?
Tell me, what was it like when you lifted the plane? It was a heavy oblong lump of ash and steel. You’d lift it up by the shiny dark red well-palmed handle, your eyes steady above the vice, then swing it down. The oiled and certain blade would whisper the pine off in fragrant curls. I never had your hand for this kind of thing Dad, I pushed it away. You wanted, you expected I suppose, me to take you up on it. Well, if it’s not too obvious, I try to do the same with words instead, to make a table or chair that will take the weight.
Tell me what was your Dad like? Why did you never talk about him? But then, you never talked about anyone. What did you talk about? I can’t remember much. “Greece? A bloody awful place to fight a war”. The best times were happily silent, waiting by the canal for the half-pound chub to pounce! What was it made you so tight with money? producing £4000 from the wardrobe one night just before the end of your life, for me to count?
Creatures sift in the weight of brine and sludge, dying to make a world. Faces torched the sweat-shops. Cut in the bark of factory-walls, deserted, the names of women and men whose ore and grease produced the country.
Tell me father -
I remember - men on buses smoking Woodbines, greasy knapsacks, freezing roads to factories on night-shifts -
“I remember Greece - that woman, standing in a doorway - what a bloody awful place to fight a war - the dogs - remember Florrie - days and nights of scarlet fever - you were only two - they’d better watch that bridge - and dressed in black she was - and beautiful -
I’ll remember him in his shed, we sawed asbestos together, I held it. He built the shed and the garage himself, cupboards, fireplaces, shelves. His joints were perfect. Nothing but perfect would do. He had beautiful tools for the job. His shed was his church, though he’d never use that word of course; his shed was his shed.
I’d like to say that Gornal town is a sort of iron rose
that’s forged by all the men of this vicinity
- it’s in their blood, to saw, to carve, to work in flame -
an emblem cast from solid craft and common cause -
but no -
one day he died.
We walk around in speech-marks,
and there is no edge, to town or face, to claim
or fall from.
As I type, the threat of demolition fades -
these lines are strewn across a disused factory wall,
the light is lake-like, massive, and there is no weight.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The