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The Duke's Cut - specially commissioned poem

About the poet 
Jo Bell is a writer and performer, facilitator, workshop leader, editor, live literature promoter and manager of creative projects across the UK.

Formerly a professional archaeologist, Jo retains a strong interest in historic landscapes. She is based on 67 foot narrowboat Tinker which moors in Cheshire for the winter.

Jo has been commissioned to write this commemorative poem to mark the 250th anniversary of the Bridgewater Canal.

The Duke's Cut
A quiet morning, in the orange mud by Worsley Delph -
John Gilbert, with leaking boots, and the duke himself.
Two men in a field with strings and stakes,
wanting coal at fourpence a hundredweight.

They'll break more ground than they can chart;
the Duke's Cut will split the world apart.
It's a project as vital as veins, steam-strong;
a line of working water, two hundred and fifty years long.

A canal should have coal at its heels, says the Duke
so the little starvationers carry the bulk
of black gold to the Manchester factory gates;
and it sells at fourpence a hundredweight.

In their narrow wake come all things that float;
the fly boats with sickles to cut rival ropes,
the Joshers and Rickies and Mersey flats
and Tupperware cruisers with captain's hats

and pop-pop- popping Bolinders, and Lister HR3s
and an army of boaters, who didn't need to read
but learned in their long thin village, how to paint a rose;
who scumbled from cargo to cargo, loaded their way through the wars.

We'll carry stone or brick, we'll carry your black gold:
bring us your new world order, we'll stack it in the hold.
We'll carry stone for bridges, and you set the masons to work

joining the watery dots: Duke's Cut to Medlock to Irwell to Irk.

We'll carry coals and cabbages, mill-wheels, wheelwrights
looking glasses, Pit props, metal ores and Arkwrights;
cheeses and chintz and love letters,
information, ammunition, slave-trade fetters;

slaked lime and lime juice, cotton, slums and tea;
puddle clay and jasperware, guns and sugar, poverty;
bricks for the furnaces, timber for the wharf;
chains that leave the bilges bright with swarf.

A nation of ironmasters and smiths
setting the globe on a steam-powered lathe:
forging a new North in workshops
heaving the Empire up by its bootstraps.

Telford and Rennie and Smeaton and Jessop
are planning new channels as quick as gossip.
And the Cut fills the sluices and aqueducts,
and the lives of boat people with coal in their tear ducts,

coal dust in their ears, coal dust in their teapots
and coal in their blood; whose landmarks are locks
and a tunnel where water runs red from the hill;
coal at fourpence a hundredweight, and plenty of pockets to fill.

And through Brindley's heavy mitred gate
pours coal at fourpence a hundredweight
Change at fourpence a hundredweight;
Lightning at fourpence a hundredweight.

In this orange mud, John Gilbert and his master
are tuning the world to turn better and faster.
It's a project as vital as veins, steam-strong;
a line of working water, two hundred and fifty years long.




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