Thursday, 12 November 2020 at 17:48
Here’s a sequence based on some old photographs of Beverley. An earlier version (quite different from the poems here) appeared in Slipway (Wordquake, 2013) a Humber Writers’ collaborative anthology commissioned for the Beverley Literature Festival, and for which I also made a short film.
Written in Light
They disappear so slowly, but they go,
legs armed, heavy in worsted, tweed: big bolts
of cloth that flap about these bony boys.
Not doffed, but dropped: flat caps; discarded boots;
the faster lads in shirtsleeves – their oiled quiffs shine
out of the dark – while, breaking lock-step, junior clerks
clock off or get their cards. They’ve drawn a line,
a vein, under the double-entry ledger, its stark
negotiations of page, ruled columns of black on white,
and slowly rush to each now certain future,
unsleeping fast into the fleet and uncaught bright.
These young – already at their fleetingest – attain
the transparency of speed… escape
to the velocity of light.
Who are these women behind hard stares and pinnies,
scrubbing and squinnying from their whitened steps?
Do they outface their tight-laced betters? (That halo of breath
– the widow at her window’s lacy nets?)
Or is it against the cracked and naked panes
of the barefaced poor their faces are really set?
An aproned line outstares the world, upright and straight
outside the imperially-measured dry-goods store:
stiff collars, ties still peeking above those oblong whites
– moustachioed cadavers stacked in their winding sheets,
or men, wound tight as chrysalises once,
now almost blooming from the strings of their tight trade?
We turn the page, peer through each window that wore
its own boiled-white and starchy pinafore.
They pose: high collars, scrubbed, boys full of lives
still waiting to come in from the huge outside
(the chauffeur and Bugatti idling on the drive).
Or these young men intent on their place in history,
the one as yet unwritten, the one they’d write;
that background man with his air of vague mystery.
Pavilions of confident chaps – striped blazers, straw boaters;
these pretty girls – champagne, strawberries and floaty
dresses – now waving goodbye from expensive motors.
Their eyes are all lit with ancient alternatives,
the unheard chronicles to elsewhere, elsewhen. Who knew
– not these, embarking on their historic future lives –
what lay in store? What later – already even – might have led
to how gods as yet unborn would judge these unknown dead?4. HATS
The happy event: floral hats like cake-stands;
the glint of trombone, trumpet, the tubby tuba
– you can almost hear the brass band’s oompah-pah –
the frothy ’taches, the marquee’s foaming pints.
The heads thrown back to aim a laugh at the cloudless sky,
so happy and huge you almost hear it being snapped.
Meanwhile the ragamuffins scarper from the bobby.
Can you hear the hobnails clacking cobbles,
taunts hanging in the echoing alley? Smudge-faced girls
squealing in grubby smocks, their curls in cables?
Far harder to hear these umbrellaed gatherings of crow
-black coats which fall to skirt their booted ankles.
Can’t read their widowed faces. Tight-lipped or veiled:
darknesses balanced on isosceles triangles.
Bishops, Vice-Chancellors, Lord Mayors, Privy Councillors,
snug with the certainty of fobs and gold watches,
oil-painted into morocco-bound gilt-edged corners,
warming their robes and chains of high office.
Or barrel-chested by awaiting carriages;
posed on the lawn, sealing the good marriage,
the beribboned children are already pale and fading,
beside the solid house that is no more.
The servants fled and the mansions humbled.
The gables gone and the chimneys tumbled.
The pediments and architraves,
cornices and swaggering stone, cut down to size;
the steeples, and all that rose high razed;
towers sinking into the ground like grave.
6. STREET FURNITURE
The proliferating signage of eight-till-late:
forget the bank’s brass-plated earnest door.
It’s all Wetherspoon’s, Oxfam, pound-shop pop-up, nail-bar,
Barnardo’s, Polsky Sklep, convenience store.
The Workhouse has been put to idleness;
Business has parked itself just out of town,
the library’s in the low-rise leisure centre
where work’s the sweaty penance paid for pleasure.
Those who settled long ago are gone,
they’ve left some standing, mainly fallen, stones,
but mostly it’s just the barely decipherable mound:
earth’s belly, oddly swollen with gods and bones.
With nothing more to live up to, they’ve finally found
their level. It suits them down to the ground.