a girl and a gasometer: storytelling in poetry

Uluru,  sacred Aboriginal place, Australia

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.

Beaumont Gasometer, photo thanks to the Carinci family. Just over the cap on the boy on the right, in the distance, you can barely see the top of the building where I lived.

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?

Fakenham Gasworks Museum, UK. Retort oven to be filled by hand with coal.

Shoveling coal into twenty or thirty of these retorts a day, the oven heat up to 3000 degrees.

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

so tired

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

1945, my cousin Joanne on the far left, me on the far right, with children from the Campbell families. Photo from Billy Rosser.

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.

Corner of McGill and Notre dame, 1914

…was it

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.

Johnny Ashton’s milk wagon and and his horse, with two of the Campbell children. The photo shows the concrete base of the gasometer, containing the water that ‘floated’ the metal gas holder. The picture was taken in front of where I lived. (permission of Corpusse Ashton)

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 claudiaradmore@gmail.com, (address and name in message) or send a check to her at: 49 McArthur Ave, Carleton Place, On, K7C 2W1