Occasionally you come across something which unsettles, shifts, uplifts, shocks or forces a journey somewhere new…

This video is what has unsettled me since I viewed it. In particular, the footage of an Indian boy in cotton factory struggling to stay conscious as he feeds cotton over rollers despite exhaustion of a magnitude I’ve never seen (or probably experienced) before. Link here (footage referred to starts at 21.00 mins in - but worth watching the whole thing!)

It prompted this poem - a villanelle - which is a villain of a form to work with but which felt appropriate for the task. An audio version has been uploaded to my XR Echo Chamber Channel, link here.

Yellow Gloves

The boy feeds cotton through the rollers and his dead eyes say, ‘Mitra, do not pity me’
my closing eyelids join with his but cannot shut the factory doors
I long to throw his yellow gloves away and give him back his dignity…

The need to sleep steals his every waking hour, while our inhumanity
to one another (he’s my brother) halts my yawn and locks my jaws
the boy feeds cotton through the rollers and his dead eyes say, ‘Mitra, do not pity me’

I choose a villain of a villanelle for its monotony –
to haunt us like discarded clothes, heaped up on Western floors
I long to throw his yellow gloves away and give him back his dignity…

Beneath the yellow gloves his scarred and calloused hands are itching to be free
I sacrifice a few days sleep and weep, my pen is clutching straws
the boy feeds cotton through the rollers and begs me to say, ‘Mitra, do not pity me’

Pity only desecrates and overwhelm is the privilege of luxury
I write these words, urge everyone to boycott bargain fashion stores
I long to throw his yellow gloves away and give him back his dignity…

I fail to understand as his message circles round my head continually
and then as I complain ‘I feel dead tired’ and slump to bed I know the cause
Mitra feeds the cotton through the rollers and hollers, ‘Do not pity me!’
You’re wrong! No yellow gloves will ever take away my dignity…’

Copyright waived but please advise if you use, and credit author Liz Darcy Jones with link here so it can be shared.

The footage referred to is part of a vpro YouTube documentary ‘Why our economic model must change’ featuring economist, research and writer Kate Raworth whose book ‘Donut Economics’ would see the end of extractive exploitation such as this (and extraction of fossil fuels) and the creation of a ‘circular economy’.

Ironically, this boy helped remove the lie that the need to sleep deprives us of our dignity (another word for worth), a judgement I have branded myself with for many years. Irrespective of our need for sleep, whether justified by ‘hard work’ or not, our dignity or worth remains. I owe this young man - who I will likely never meet - both an apology and a huge debt of gratitude.

This is my first poetic response to a book for well over a year. I’ve just finished reading Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Underland: A Deep Time Journey’. It moved, and is still moving me - slowly, more deliberately than before.

Published by Hamish Hamilton |  Link to Buy via Hive

Published by Hamish Hamilton | Link to Buy via Hive

I realised I haven’t explained - although you may surmise from the poem - that Robert Macfarlane’s expeditions are down rather than up. They are into darkness rather than light. We need to face the darkness.

Having finished writing the poem opposite I turned to my morning inspirational reading and the page fell open at this quote, which seems so apposite I’m sharing…

'If you want light, bring it to the dark places of your mind. Bring it to the fear and shame, to the sadness, to the perceived lack of purpose or hope…. When you get to absolute pitch blackness, there illumination is found. Blackest black becomes radiant. Sadness turns to unaccountable joy. Despair turns to hope without measure.
In one pole, you find the other.’

- Paul Ferrini, I am the Door

OVERLAND TO UNDERLAND (dedicated to Robert Macfarlane)

Before: hope

Without that four lettered word on the flyleaf
(long abandoned – or so I thought)
the impetus would have been missing
there would have been no clothes horse
on which to hang ancestral regrets, global misdeeds,
all the deathly drapes
of the obscene of the human being:
there would have been no reading on…

I imagined they’d been hung out to dry on the surface
but here they are
shoved deep into a rucksack
like a copper casket of memories
impossible to bury but longing for oblivion –
whereabouts unknown but ever-present

Hope was also packed -
an afterthought, a neglected talisman
Hope. Hope for survival, hope for compassion,
hope for the future,
hope for some graveyard sign – an extended hand perhaps –
that we knew love too.

During: rope

Onto his word-rope I hold,
ascend, grope, and then descend
body and heart can’t bend without his adjectival assistance
his curious mind straining to move its iron tongue
against immeasurable pressure and resistance
his bold a world beyond my shallow overland foray
among a thousand serried tracks
inching page after page
his shared cold leads me through to blue
and the agelessness of ice
his scars, his numb, his strung-out emotions
these are comfort’s sacrifice

lakes of frozen beauty settle a ten-day
journey which shrinks to a millisecond against the author’s decade
as he scratched this Underland into existence
of unremitting expeditions into the dark of time
uncovering the heinous human crime:
the fantasy of hidden depth

a cuckoo roused me from the undergrowth
my ten days of unsettled spiralling get me where?

Now: cope

I was spoiled for spoilers –
they boom, boulder and flood each chapter
until this relentless rewinding into darkness
leads me to a trope
a coping stone (a ‘finishing touch’ ) how deadly apt

we must cope as they coped
cope: from the Greek kolaphos, from ‘a blow with a fist’
smelting into ‘prove oneself a match for’
gentling into ‘contend successfully with’
with you, nature, the toxic legacy we’ve created,
to cope with knowing we’re part of the schist
which one day will glint or sinter or disintegrate
in the hair-thin seam of the Anthropocene
or sound a long and hollow keen
amplified by absence

and yet, and yet
on shutting the book’s cover and returning to this inescapable overland
it’s more blindingly alive than ever
enveloping and embracing
you and me
set against the Underland’s immensity.

P.S. And I find that hope shape-shifts to grief, to a hiraeth brought into focus by the deepest blue. It stretches out its hands through time – tongue-tied by language – longing for the sound, the touch, the sight of stranger, friend, four-legged, winged, unborn, green-leaved and rock-ribbed... You.

© Liz Darcy Jones