Week 193: Millom Old Quarry, by Norman Nicholson

I love this poem by Norman Nicholson (1914-1987) such a sensuous evocation of a northern town’s back streets – those gables ‘sanded with sun’, that ‘smoke of lilac’ – combined with a startling geological perspective.

Millom Old Quarry

‘They dug ten streets from that there hole,’ he said,
‘Hard on five hundred houses.’ He nodded
Down the set of the quarry and spat in the water
Making a moorhen cock her head
As if a fish had leaped. ‘Half the new town
‘Came out of yonder – King Street, Queen Street, all
‘The houses round the Green as far as the slagbank,
‘And Market Street, too, from the Crown allotments
‘Up to the Station Yard.’ – ‘But Market Street’s
‘Brown freestone’, I said. ‘Nobbut the facings
‘We called them the Khaki Houses in the Boer War
‘But they’re Cumberland slate at the back.’

I thought of those streets still bearing their royal names
Like the coat-of-arms on a child’s Jubilee Mug –
Nonconformist gables sanded with sun
Or branded with burning creeper; a smoke of lilac
Between the blue roofs of closet and coal-house;
So much that woman’s blood gave sense and shape to
Hacked from this dynamited combe.
The rocks cracked to the pond, and hawthorns fell
In waterfalls of blossom. Shed petals
Patterned the scum like studs on the sole of a boot
And stiff-legged sparrows skid down screes of gravel.

I saw the town’s black generations
Packed in their caves of rock, as mussel or limpet
Washed by the tidal sky; then swept, shovelled
Back in the quarry again, a landslip of lintels
Blocking the gape of the tarn.
The quick turf pushed a green tarpaulin over
All that was mortal in five thousand lives.
Nor did it seem a paradox to one
Who held quarry and query, turf and town
In the small lock of a recording brain.

Norman Nicholson

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