Cremation Eclogue

Tony Harrison

Pig pyres are crackling in the snow-flecked fields,
dawn bonfires next to cleaned out byres and folds.
I know my taxi driver. FMD,
the tragic traincrash (ten dead) yesterday
are what we talk about: Heddon-on-the-Wall
may be infected from untreated swill,
the micro virus and the cattle plague
that could cross borders between bloc and bloc
when the world was so divided, let alone
unpatrolled farm fences, ditch and lane.
The taxi’s heater’s fierce, we discuss
the icicles hanging from the underpass,
this zero morning as we track the Tyne
and follow the Station signposts towards town.

I was in what was then Leningrad

I say (as we rattle over a cattle grid
and then squelch across a disinfectant mat
not the first this morning that we’ve met)

a falling icicle caused the death
of a man who was walking underneath
pole-axed as he sauntered with his wife
right through his fur hat of sleek grey wolf,
the sharp tip with its glossy shine
sticking through his badly shaven chin.
In Leningrad you couldn’t buy a blade
you’d get a decent shave from and not bleed.

An ice-bolt from malicious gods
could chill the skull and slice the vocal chords
of this Geordie smoker here, under threat,
getting quick drags of smoke into his throat,
banished the bank so many times a day
increasing the odds that maybe he will die,
this ostracised, cold, street-drag Damocles
under the half-thawed bank roof icicles.
The frozen, furtive smoker in shirt sleeves
under icicle-hung gutterings and eves
puffs fast on his cupped fag and quickly stubs
half out among the scattered kerbside tabs.

I enter Dobson’s elegant colonnade,
its Railway Age proportions just renewed,
aware of risk and how a roof-slate slid
only two days ago, a heavy slate,
off my front roof and cut the garden seat
where normally on warm days I’d’ve sat
and almost did that first bright day of March
when the sun woke up a solitary midge.
If the temperature had been two more degrees
I might have sat there and not cut my grass
so that the tile that weeks of gale winds loosed
missed me by metres and my skull’s unsliced.

Yesterday ten passengers on this route died
which makes today’s predictably subdued
like me, who’s thinking did fate choose to spare
me from slate, and collision, as a kind of spur,
to go on doing what I do, that’s look and write
as I’ve done since the Sixties on this route.

I remember all the great books that I’ve read
I’d never’ve started if I’d gone by road,
the poems, like this one, that I’ve written
some passable, and published, most though rotten.
I used to know the landmarks on this route
the industries of Britain left and right.
Once I’d know exactly where we were
from the shapes of spoil heaps and from winding gear
spinning their spokes and winching down a shift
miles deep into this sealed and filled-in shaft
and which bits of field you’d see a score
of rabbits in the passing train would scare,
which Yorkshire coal-dust-laquered black lagoon
had crested grebes on once but now long gone,
but once my own slack-blackened Hippocrene,
though the Pegasus would be more like that crane,
raising a replica of this coach, ripped and crushed
when yesterday’s Newcastle-King’s Cross crashed,
I see from a jerkily slow, jinxed British train
through snow, cremation smoke-clouds, quarantine.

If you still could get them open then I’d throw
these pages I’ve been scribbling, 1-2-3,
out of the window. All I’ve done so far
of ‘Cremation Eclogue’ floats towards the fire,
where choking piles of stiff-legged Friesians blaze,
their piebald blending, poem into place.