By James McGonigal
¾ of a century gone
and the place and the men
under ground how can
I say what in truth
that work was? Picture
the legs of your bed
jacked to within 3 feet
of the ceiling – a neat
slot for sleeping
as long as you like
how you wd stretch
into it by ladder from
the wardrobe top maybe
reached from a chair
watching your head
when you woke with a start
in the dark. Your dreams
no narrower but rather
as a river in its estuary
brims into mudflat and reeds
yet carries in that sluggish
belly the full weight
of a lifetime’s rain – so
here your dreams expand
except instead of sleep
you are tensed low
and flat on a board
as your pickaxe cracks
open compacted dreams of rocks.
Here’s another way to see it.
Children like to climb a tree.
Well, take that ash or beech and fell it
through an angle of 90° but push that
90° again through grass and clay
so that its roots suck air untidily
and the trunk is a vertical shaft
descending. Branches and boughs
you love for sky-gazing are hollow
seams to follow
and find that here the view’s not air
but years – leaves fossilized in black
flicker back in flame. The mind
burns too when pick and shovel redd
centuries into hutches and away.
The cost of this –
a miner every 6 hours, so they say.
Look at my face and hands broken and gouged
the long back twisted out of line utterly.
It was the arcwall cutter in a narrow seam
and badly tensioned chains. It was
the cold shift of an April night in Foulshiels.
My bones were crushed in coal the body
axed and blood rolled into bools of dross.
No man’s fault. It was my job: the fireman
checks how close the belt and teeth are in.
You are still in the dark. Let me say again
it was soldier-like to enter the ingaun ee
with lamp and pickaxe and descend
with other men to be raised at dawn
and cycle home. I was not alone.
Men gathered up my body in a box
and sealed it. Four days later
a cousin wheeled the bike and tools back
for my sons if there’s no help for it
and they must follow me to win their meals.
They did not, I thank God, in Foulshiels