Elements

by Nancy Campbell

A new poem for the Nottingham & Beeston Canal on Nottingham Light Night 2018 – and one week after Chinese New Year.

Travellers on this Wooden vessel, let me tell you a story of Fire and Water and finding Funds (by which I mean, finding Gold) and how these elements meet between two steep banks of Earth.

Money is both paper and metal // Paper the parliamentary act on which long ago my making was passed / and paper for the loans of investors / and yet more paper for their debts // And metal the chain slung across my waves by the toll keeper at Lenton / and the coins that changed hands there before barges could breach me / to ship iron ore along me, drawn by strong horses // And the jigs and cranes and pulleys clanking on city wharves so boaters’ backs would not be broken // and the salvage raised by kids who trawl with magnets for treasure, those who need treasure / and pennies thrown into the cut for luck by those who don’t // And metal the rails laid down with rivets and the wheels of the trains upon them / marking a new line across the land / and so turns my story…

For once I outshone the roads / the dust roads with their potholes, the drove roads, the pack roads / before rail overtook me // And land was the start of me / was here long before me / the earth sliced and shovelled and wheeled off in barrows / men’s energy spent on a long empty hollow // The Trent – my old rival – snakes away southwards // A river makes its own way, whereas I was surveyed / my purpose debated / planned / I was wanted // From Meadow Lane to Beeston Lock / I keep my course between these banks / you won’t find an oxbow eroding over ages here, rather a right angle that stays true / I’m on the map now, a landless landmark // And earth was my cargo too / I brought flint to the potteries / carried ceramics back / and rarely a vessel cracked // The clay from local pits made bricks that built my bridges // The city grew up / and held me in its red-brick hug… 

And there was always fire, even so close to water / I was only a spark in Jessop’s eye, when the blasts in the pits were echoed by distant fusillades / and barely begun, when England declared war with France // I was designed for one world, but finished in a new one // Coal came by butty from Strelley and Billborough to fuel the factories / while fire fomented in workers’ hearts // And fire spreads fast // One day at Wilford Street wharf a laughing boatman passed a hot clinker from his own furnace to a boat loaded with gunpowder, thinking just to share a spark / the explosion made waves / sank boats / shook the streets to the market place / as if a dragon stirred in the caves // Warehouses crumbled / and were built again // and now it is Firefox and Flash Player that gleam behind the office windows…

And so to wood, and all that floats on water / I’ve learned to love the lighter hulls of fibreglass / to let pontoons and playboats float upon me / though my first boats were built from timber at Trevethick’s yard / strips of oak and iroko soaked and curved // the forests that once hid outlaws, now setting them free // trees understand my speed // I flow past yards stacked with willow planks for cricket bats // I slip through the wooden gates of Castle Lock / that govern like the hands of clocks / your time, my water level / and emerge where saplings shade the towpath and blackberries grow wild / and anglers cast invisible lines for fish / and dogs run after half-imagined sticks…

 You can see my whole reach from the sky / as a plane descends or as a raindrop falls / the old maps told it so // my course shaped like a farmer’s crook / guiding old sheep to the market, new sheep from the lab // Or if you prefer, liken my line to a giant curving kirby grip from Boots / I still like to keep things in place // A sure shortcut, not a shallow distraction // A day turns and you note morning and evening / a year turns and you mark its beginning and ending / and all the time I travel / like a slackline walker I keep moving / without movement / is no progress // Sometimes sprightly / sometimes silty / sometimes sluggish / I flow on / from cock-crow to swan-song.