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.
I think any poet has to love drystone walls, those beautiful boundaries that snake across the fields and hills of our Cotswolds and north country like lines of some forgotten script. This is one of the best poems about them I know.
The wall walks the fell –
Grey millipede on slow
Its slack back hollowed
At gulleys and grooves,
Or shouldering over
Too big to be rolled away.
Of the high crags
Crawl in the walk of the wall.
A dry-stone wall Is a wall and a wall,
Greening and weathering,
Flank by flank,
With filling of rubble
Between the two –
Flags and through-
stones jutting out sideways,
Like the steps of a stile.
A wall walks slowly,
At each give of the ground,
Each creak of the rock’s ribs,
It puts its foot gingerly,
Arches its hog-holes,
Lets cobble and knee-joint
Settle and grip.
As the slipping fellside
Erodes and drifts,
The wall shifts with it,
Is always on the move.
They built a wall slowly,
A day a week;
Built it to stand,
But not stand still.
They built a wall to walk.
Sea to the West
When the sea’s to the west
The evenings are one dazzle –
You can find no sign of water.
Sun upflows the horizon;
Waves of shine
Heave, crest, fracture,
Explode on the shore;
The wide day burns.
In the incandescent mantle of the air.
I would lean on handlebars,
Staring into the flare,
Blinded by looking,
Letting the gutterings and sykes of light
Flood into my skull.
Then, on the stroke of bedtime,
I’d turn to the town,
Cycle past purpling dykes
To a brown drizzle
Where black-scum shadows
Stagnated between backyard walls.
I pulled the warm dark over my head
Like an eiderdown.
Yet in that final stare when I
(Five times, perhaps, fifteen)
Creak protesting away –
The sea to the west,
The land darkening –
Let my eyes at the last be blinded
Not by the dark
But by the dazzle.
The presence of light in this poem is so physical one almost feels one should be reading it through smoked glass, the way those ‘gutterings and sykes’ (a syke is a small ditch or rill) flood into one’s own skull. Certainly it more than earns the right to that final perhaps inevitable yet still surprising touch of the metaphysical.