The facts of a life, the remembering of that life, affirming its importance, is a challenge biographers and autobiographers have taken up for thousands of years. Australian Aborigines saved their cultures and survived under the harshest conditions because of storytelling, their storytelling in song, precursor to poetry as we think of it today. Even the Odyssey was possibly a way to map the Mediterranean, the journey compressed into poetry, because to tell every thought and emotion and fact along the way would have been too long for a culture to remember and pass down.
Therefore, poetry, to capture in a shorter literature, using poetic form to aid in the compression of fact and emotion, was the best way to tell my story of a girl and a gasometer and how it was integral to the growth of a neighbourhood.
Because that doesn’t sound too interesting, does it. The gasometer has passed from the modern world, along with the memory of it and the way commerce, urban society, and eventually rural society depended upon finding ways to store an aethereal commodity so it could light, warm, and feed communal populations before electricity was economically and technically available. What about the processes that made it possible?
From Genii of the Lamp, an essay by Charles Dickens, in 1862:
The manufacture of gas, although it
includes many beautiful
scientific processes, is not, on the
whole, a sightly operation. What is
not seen may be refined and
interesting; but what is seen decidedly
savours of pandemonium.
There are huge caverns of red hot
coke, and a row of fiery ovens,
which sooty men are constantly
feeding with coal thrust in, out of
large iron scoops.
So then, I chose to use poetic techniques to tell the whole story effectively, to use drama, memoir, repetition. Capture the sound of a part of history in thirty lines, repeat for emphasis, connect the past to emotions one can relate to in the present day. Bring back childhood, make the past, what has been lost, real.
four years old
breathing is such hard work
there are two doors in my room
one to enter the room and one
to the verandah
a window in the door is divided
into four squares and the squares
are filled with gold
is it heaven?
my mother tells me
it is a gas tank
And tell the story so that it can be absorbed in hours. Do it through words that can lodge in the brain, rather than flash on a screen for minutes, and easily forgotten.
your grandfather who came to do this whose tough
European build dug this trench dug miles of it
no steel-cap boots no compensation just stay ahead
ten hours a day to dig a trench for miles of gas pipes
a solid trench a reliable wood plank shoring wall
on a good day a good man shifts three tons of dirt
I wanted to emphasize how the lives and work of those before us were as important as anything people do today, and that without them, today would not exist. This is the work narrative poetry does.
Read this excerpt, preferable aloud…(there are 15 more lines of processes in which steam was important, in order to have clean gas reach the gasometer). Hear the rhythm of how steam once caused our world to go round…
steam for clearing chemical obstructions in pipes
steam for clearing naphthalene in pipes
steam for clearing tar in pipes
steam for preventing congealing in chemical tanks
steam for preventing congealing in chemical wells
steam for general cleaning of equipment
steam for heating cold buildings in the works
steam for maintaining the temperature of process piping
steam for preventing freezing of the water under the gasholder
steam to ensure high-quality secondary combustion
steam as a reactant in the carbureted water gas plant
steam to drive the equipment thereof…
I hope you will, with me, feel the loss of childhood, everything that was my, and your, world:
I wasn’t there when they took down the gas holder
I can’t image how that huge bell was dismantled
though I sometimes see its miles of rounded rivets
in my dreams like cloth buttons fastening the great
curved metal sheets together and how they turned
smartly at the corners of each panel two by two
double rows catching the sun like a marching drill
that we learned at school; could I have handled
the dismantling or the empty gasometer exoskeleton
bereft and without purpose like someone unexpectedly
not able to find their way home from the supermarket.
My childhood neighbourhood is gone, and yet it lives on, because of poetry.
To obtain a copy of Park Ex Girl: Life with Gasometer, send an e-transfer for $25 to firstname.lastname@example.org, (address and name in message) or send a check to her at: 49 McArthur Ave, Carleton Place, On, K7C 2W1