The following sequence of sonnets is part of a collaborative book project between myself and the poet Marc Woodward. We live on opposite sides of the Teign river estuary, with Dartmoor to the west and the sea to the east. Our project attempts to capture, in poetry, something of the natural history and industrial ecology of this arena, including contemporary ecopoetic pieces engaging with the flora, fauna and biogeography of the environment, alongside more historicized, social poems that explore the granite and tin mining histories of the catchment.
‘The Tin Lodes’ stretches this catchment to include the Cornish coast too – an act of poetic license. It’s an attempt to bring together a personal moment (a walk with my friend, the poet Kelvin Corcoran), with broader historical and ecopoetic material about the natural and industrial ecologies of the coast at Geevor & Levant on the Cornish coast, where there are some enigmatic tin mine ruins. On our walk, Kelvin told me about his interest in a Graeco-French character, Pytheas of Massalia (Marseilles), who was the first ‘trader’ to come to Britain to cash in on the Bronze Age tin and copper works… in short, Pytheas annexed the trade of the Britons for the Roman Empire in the C3rd BC.
As I began to think about him, Pytheas put me in mind of ‘Phlebas the Phoenician’ in The Waste Land… my poem, accordingly, leans on some of the mercantile language in that great poem. There’s also a fair amount of tin mining material in Alice Oswald’s book-length poem DART, which I have also leaned upon for the more ballad like section of this poem.
This layering of texts, along with the layering of time in the poem, is an attempt to create an expansive European space – sea routes creating an ancient, cosmopolitan coastline, place connected to place, and time to time (and poet to poet), by industry and commodity, venture and adventure. Like Pytheas and his workers, I hope the poem drills down into the earth, into place and time; into poetry.
The Tin Lodes
for Kelvin Corcoran
‘Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.’
0000000000 from ‘Death by Water’, The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot
‘this foundry for sounds’
0000000000 from Dart, Alice Oswald
I. Kestrel at Geevor
The kee-kee of a hunting Windhover
chimed through the spires of the tin mine chimneys.
It stooped from one element to another,
from floating point of fantailed stasis
down into the thatch of grass and thrift,
dropping like a stream of molten metal
from crucible to mould; striking its prey
and shipping it by talon to a post
where the bronzed beak was dipped, the bones picked clean.
Beyond, the one-eyed stannary chimneys
watched the kill with ancient disregard –
weathered coastal sentries in spring sunshine
that could have been the ruins of Mycenae,
or Herodotus’s Cassiterides. The Tin Islands
II. Pytheas of Massalia 000000000000000000000000000000003rd century BC, Marseilles
Pytheas of Massalia, steps from his barque,
orders his oarsmen to anchor, be silent,
out of the reach and the roil of the surf
that breaks beyond the turmoiled turquoise world.
His carious teeth glint in the Cornish sun.
(‘The Romans are coming. The Romans!’)
His legion rows ashore and seals the site.
Anatolian slaves from the Empire quake
in this forsaken, windswept backwater,
burning with knowledge of copper, tin, bronze
and an era’s cutting edge weaponry.
Beneath his sandaled feet, Pytheas sees
the cuprous stripes that bleed across the rocks.
‘Our hands will soon control the trading route…’
To Geevor then we came
heading West to East
along the sandy road
above the spent tin lodes.
Walking beside you, Kelvin,
a kestrel high in the air
(and a geek’s remote-control drone),
we were buddling for nuggets
in talk of the shadowy past,
smelting the impure ore of memory
into the white metal of Now
in a place that resonates with far away.
‘Some epiphanies,’ you said,
‘we can surely live without.’
Mr Pytheas, the Marseilles merchant
can still hear the cicadas of the Med
in the cries of these gulls a thousand miles
from home. He’ll want to keep the source a secret
from those get-rich-quick traders he has left
behind – the mob of Marseilles millionaires.
‘They’ll get their tin from Ictis soon enough, St Michael’s Mount
carted back across the channel, down the Rhône
to Gaul. I, Pytheas, minter of tin,
entrepreneur, am resistant to corrosion;
to their ruin and corruption. Consider
what they will do with the money I bring.
Get themselves some teeth! Some morals!’
(Uncertainty in EU Stocks and Shares.)
V. The Coffin Works 000000000000000000000000000open cast seams
What happened to Kiran? 00000 1919 Levant mine disaster
He’s gone under ground –
thirty-one men at pick and shovel
buried alive and drowned.
Treeve and Santo, Rewan and Pascow.
Benesek and Branoc, Arthek and Clemo.
Our founder, the sea-lord, old Meryasek,
Costentyn, no longer firm. And bold Hedrek.
Their bodies are undone. Their Names live only.
They haunt the shafts and adits
while their wives and Bal Maidens – 00000 young female mine labourers
those Ladies of the Rocks – stay lonely.
Their tallow candles long blown out.
Their long home in the wind’s redoubt.
VI. The Devil’s Metal
Pytheas, mineral lord of Massalia,
oversees the stamp and crazing mill; tin ore mill
pays tribute to his captains underground. payment for ore
Blasting the stopes out with black powder 000000 the space where ore is cleared
Thomas Epsley blew himself yonder in 1689.
John Archer at Trebollans mine
followed him in ’91 ‘while shuting rocks’.
The beelemen advance the drift, 000 pick-axe handlers
chip away the ore and deads
and, where the lode dips slopewise,
the shovelmen barrow it back
bringing the broad shovel to bear,
up to the shambles and into the light broad stairs
by hoisters with a pair of balanced keebles. hoisting bucket
Pytheas and his Anatolians
unearth the copper zones beneath the tin.
Their water wheels and pumps exhaust the leat.
Above them, kestrels hover for fresh meat.
What do you want it for, Adventurer, Tutworker; prospector, miner
wherefore this silver-white stannum?
For bronze. For solder. Tins of peas.
A tube of paste to shine your teeth.
The windward escarpment sings ‘Profit & Loss’
to these material men. Over the peaks 000000000 material men, mine chandlers and fitters
of the already ancient boulders
the arid plains of the Med are calling home.
‘But all that is behind me,’ cries Pytheas.
‘All that is nothing but a deep sea swell.’
The plunging winzes scored into the surface vertical shafts
were fenced off for the care of visitors.
The shafts and level mining of the cliff works
outlined the branded fields of heritage.
We stopped beside a ventilation shaft,
our girls gone on ahead of us, rounding
the bluff. The kestrel still kee-kee’d above,
or was that the rhythm of poll picks,
plugs and feathers, chisels,
splitting the rocks down below?
Out in the bay a tall ship rounded
the point, tailed by a fleet of Phoenicians.
At our feet, the weathered outcrops
glinted underneath the oil and tar.
Andy Brown is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Exeter University. His most recent poetry books are Watersong (Shearsman, 2015), Exurbia (Worple, 2014), The Fool and the Physician (Salt, 2012), Goose Music [with John Burnside] (Salt, 2oo8) and Fall of the Rebel Angels: Poems 1996-2006 (Salt, 2006). He recently co-edited the major poetry anthology Body of Work: Poetry & Medical Writing (Bloomsbury, 2016). His first novel, Apples & Prayers, was published as an e-book by Dean Street press.