The Devil’s Work
Newcastle upon Tyne, England, 1812
Shafts collapse. Choke-damp suffocates. Still
before the dawn of artificial light, men
mine black rock. They dig into dark
pits where Auld Nick lurks in the depths.
For the Crown’s engine of heat and power,
they brave Nick’s dangers. Ninety-two die
in Newcastle. A hundred more at Wallsend. Fire-damp
ignites with a single spark struck off a collier’s pick.
Like an offering to patron Saint Barbara one man is chosen
to burn off vapors hanging low at the ceiling.
The penitent, they call him, with wet rags cowled
monk-like as protection around his ashen face.
His actions are not an expression of remorse although
who wouldn’t give thought to the last word spoken
to wife or child, or send heavenwards an invocation
before scrabbling into the mine like the blackest demon.
He crawls away from the dim gloaming of the mouth,
holding aloft a lone flame at the end of a long pole,
creeping forward, waiting for a blinding whoosh
to pass overhead. He will return to the surface
breathless, with singed brows and muddied knees. Or,
the union will provide for his family. Imagine
the pitch of this darkness. Your hand feeling blindly
for the way forward. Eyes on the candle. Ready
for the flame’s shew of yellow to blue,
ready to throw yourself flat to the ground,
lips whimpering into earth.
Before words, before
dinosaur, before flower or fruit,
before seed, no one is
alive. Dragonflies beat
wings two feet wide and careen
through Great Scale Trees.
Palm-like, these trees pole high
over brackish marsh,
branch into crown,
arcing spores into air
made sweet by their long
exhalation of oxygen.
Calamites stretch tall
from giant ferns in peat.
Their stalks telescope neatly,
leaning green spines. Finally
all topple into stagnant bogs.
Continents collide, ridge lines rise,
swamps drown in shallow seas.
Underneath, strata of root, trunk,
bark, spore, press into sediment
soft and dark and dense.
Some insist all that lived
before us is divine
provision, a larder
stocked for plunder, fair
excuse to remove mountains.
One day our bodies
will layer into fossil,
a thin scrim over earth.
For now we breathe
the smoke of ancients,
from the forests of stored light
we are burning.
Lisa Zerkle’s poems and reviews have appeared in The Collagist, Comstock Review, Southern Poetry Anthology, Broad River Review, Tar River Poetry, Nimrod, storySouth, poemmemoirstory, Cider Press Review, and Main Street Rag, among others. Her poem “Relics of the Great Acceleration” won the North Carolina Writer’s Network 2017 Randall Jarrell Poetry Competition. She is the author of Heart of the Light and a former editor of Kakalak. She lives in Charlotte, NC where she is the curator of 4X4CLT, a public art and poetry poster series, for the Charlotte Center for Literary Arts.NWCC says thank you!