Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Round for Six Bells

This photograph of women waiting at the pit head for news of their loved ones following an underground explosion at Six Bells Colliery near Abertillery in June 1960 has haunted me ever since I first spotted it in the National Coal Mining Museum at Big Pit, getting on for a decade ago.  I knew as soon as I saw the stoicism of those women that I had to come up with a response. 



It took years of waiting to be in the right place in my own life, a subsequent visit to Big Pit last year and a trip to the moving memorial at Six Bells itself before I finally set about writing my poem.  

It seemed to me that a form poem would best suit my purpose - one in which lines are repeated in a set order, to mimic the circling of thoughts that go through your head while waiting for news that could go either way, each time worse than before. I was also very aware that the news at Six Bells turned out to be as tragic as it could be, for only three of the 48 men working in the district of the mine where the explosion happened survived.  This meant whatever I wrote had to be unsentimental yet empathetic, and as good as I could make it.  
Eventually I wrote a pantoum and called it 'Round for Six Bells', the idea being each of the six stanzas would toll a litany of loss.  Well, that was the idea, anyway, and this is what I came up with.



Round for Six Bells

Above ground the women are waiting.                                      
Stretchers are piled against the wall.                                           
All that they know is sliding away.                                                         
Their hands grip the railings to steady their fear.   
                                                                  
The stretchers are piled against the wall.                                               
The sound of the hooter is like a wail.
Their hands grip the railings to steady their fear,                                 
to keep worry out of the shadows and small.
                                                           
The sound of the hooter will be their wail
as long as they cling to iron and rust,                                          
to keep worry out of the shadows and small                             
like the bacon left boiling on the stove.                                      

As long as they cling to iron and rust,                                         
they won’t imagine the flesh of the dead            
like bacon left burning on the stove,                   
no point turning worrying into dread                 
                       
so they don’t imagine the flesh of the dead        
their husbands’ skin is blackened with dust                  
it might not be as bad as they dread                    
it was just the faintest of shudders felt    
                       
and their sons’ skin is black, yes, but only with dust               
and all that they know is sliding away               
in that faintest of shudders felt                 
above ground. The women are waiting.             
  

© Deborah Harvey 2013, 2014

Once written, the poem lay around for a bit.  I read it at Bristol Poetry Festival in the autumn of 2013 and earmarked it for inclusion in my second poetry collection, Map Reading for Beginners, which is due out this September.  Then I remembered something I had read years ago: an observation Leonard Cohen had made about being duped out of the rights for 'Suzanne' and how he had once heard some people singing it on a ship on the Caspian Sea, concluding that maybe it was appropriate that such a well-loved song didn't belong just to him to make money from.

I'm not deluded enough to compare 'Round for Six Bells' with 'Suzanne' or to think that I will ever make any money out of my poetry, but I do believe that poems are like songs in that once they are take their place, however modest, in the world, they don't really belong to the poet any more.  In the narrowest sense, that hopeful little © above can easily be ignored, as recent notorious acts of plagiarism have shown.  But what I'm really talking about is the way they contain enough space for the listener or reader to interpret them in the light of their own emotional truths, which means that each time it is read, a poem takes on a new existence. 

At any rate, I wanted to give something back to the community that inspired me so I contacted the curator at the National Coal Museum and asked whether they would display it or simply keep it in their archive.  Almost immediately I had a response to the effect that they would 'frame it and hang it where people could read it'.  My poem's going home.  









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