In recent years poets have attached themselves to all sorts of places as poets-in-residence – such as famous landmarks, beauty spots or buildings, especially if there are literary associations. Residencies have since extended to more workaday places like supermarkets, clinics, prisons, stations, offices, factories, airports, theatres… and outwards, to include teams, groups and all sorts of clubs and organisations.
My residency was at a crematorium.
With its great variety of people working closely together, performing an essential job in a distinctive place which exerts a certain fascination, it promised to be a fruitful choice.
Which proved to be the case.
A set of poems resulted from all my watching, listening and talking – to technicians and office staff, managers and gardeners, to visiting professionals such as clergy and lay celebrants, organists and funeral directors, to mourners and attenders.
This one comes from the middle of the sequence, after the cooled cinders have been raked into a hopper, before staples from the coffin and bits of metal have been removed, and whatever remains has been ground up.
Before the Grinder
Look in the bin. This is what’s left
free of flesh and everything else
except an occasional staple and nail –
ancient remains, archaeological
smashed bits of bone – not ashes at all.
Scaffolding, cladding, armour protection,
those anchors and hinges, fulcra and pulleys
platforms, buttresses, arches and pillars
articulation – all separated,
reduced to these delicate fragments.
Here’s a vertebral body, its side wall removed
blown open as if by a bomb, to
reveal the miniature struts of a doll’s house
whose framework of beams supported trabeculae
cross-braced for strength – now laid bare.
This shard in the bowl of my palm
must be part of the vault of the skull –
a dome broken. And here, the smooth shoulders
of a femoral condyle, still ready to meet
a tibial plateau, arise from the debris
along with the stick of a snapped-in-half rib
and various foramina. Somewhere a scaphoid
trapezium, capitate, hamate, triquetrum
phalanges, cuboid, navicular, talus
are buried and lost in this broken-up masonry,
dried out and crumbly, yielding occasionally
something to recognise before
it’s ground into sand – bones, bricks and mortar –
not a fragment remaining, no Latin, no English –
just a fine powder they will call ash.
As you can see, I was struck by the beauty of the jumbled fragments, which I began to recognise in their partially destroyed state. Identifying their functions and names, I was reminded of architectural ruins, which themselves became mixed up with my own archaeological memories of Latin anatomical terms.
I hope the poem is straight-forward enough, despite the muddle of the topic. I wanted to communicate the wonder of encountering these skeletal remains – the soft and decomposable bits having been burnt – in their new, cleansed, eroded and opened-up form.
I was left with the unexpected wish that they be broken up no more: that they be held, respected – even somehow cherished as architectural artefacts.
Which is what I was surprised to find myself doing.