Canzone to an Underground Flow
by Jane Burn
There is a river underfoot. The road bears
above it, thickly set. Every while, a square
of red-iron drain, skidded worn – pinned below spins
of tready-rubber, spin wheel repetitions.
Blinkered to the water’s secret flow, they lie
their metal eyes, choosing the upwards pale sky,
its woeful dull of weary, stagnant dusk drawn
and definite. Veiled by the small-town, yawning,
slow-sleeped settle, she is loud, the tingled Pont –
hums despite the gravelled, tarry skin. She haunts
the dredge of evening, sing-song telling of flow,
unchecked. How large the cavern? Echoes – I know
by sense the unmeasured space. I check for cracks
in such manufactured crust. Trusting its back,
buses, cars, bikes drive unconscious of the spring
that worries, cold and winnow-fresh. Untamed thing –
one flooded flash, gorge of storm, one glutted melt
too much and she will rise, fury formed and felt
for the years of narrowed confine. Liquid spine
arched to the nearness of freedom, she streamlines,
veins groping for weakness, for chinks, for ways out.
The walls of Watling Street are sure of their grout,
roof slates certain of their placement on the beams.
The bungalows make plumply silent globes, steam
from coal-fired chimneys, tableau of dark innards
unshaken, supper-scenes as normal. In yards
where lurchers curl in kennels and spool their bones,
shadows lean from doorways, tilt shapes of gravestone
across each mean patch. Rain starts its mizzling, damp
on my cheeks, weighs the light from the line of lamps.
The pavement becomes a mysterious place –
a pathway of spooks, leading me on. A trace
of my feet, a moment then gone – I exist
for the time it takes to dissolve. My lips, kissed
by tastes of absorbed smoke, soil, are filthy-slicked –
the dark has turned the roads to oil. All is licked
by subtle tongues – the moon sheens, the greedy swell
soaks the surplus wet and grows. How is she held?
Travel forced to just one track, she bides – has worn
her route through endless chafing. Meniscus torn
on rough rock she forms, reforms – has contemplated
cheap lives, wasted to television, sated
in dwellings sat so smug above. When she chooses,
she will bring the buildings down – shudder, loosen,
burst the surface, spill radiant snow, geyser
the wreck. While we might run screaming, stand or freeze
as if we just saw angels in the waves, drown,
face-upward, written with peace or scrawled with frowns,
liquid lung-full, she will shudder away last
traces of her imprisoned hell. Floating past,
bloated vermin shimmering next-day’s sunny
reflections as they float the deluge, honeyed
like ships made from leaves. A panicked whinny races
the sullen distance. All we owned, every place
we lived lies doused and dull, deep and lost. Filthy
human waste, fatted froth is put to new tilth –
one of ripple not blade. A moorhen gives vent
to joy for this new land. The dead sleep, content
for they know no more of handbags, clocks or bread.
Our bodies cease fighting. Undulate instead.
Note: this poem is dedicated to the river Pont, Leadgate. A section of the river runs underneath the ex-mining village near Consett, County Durham and can be heard as you walk above. The photograph is of Watling Bungalows, Leadgate.