Sometimes the chimney was hot or alight.
They sent us up anyway, mostly naked.
At night we, sleeping black,
dreamt of the bakers on Lothbury,
of tight flues and endless winding.
The first time Jonny went up,
there was not even four years behind him.
He was up while the chimney was cold,
before the morning fire was lit. His skinny limbs,
cramped, waited for the mason’s cutting tools.
Luck for the bride who sees us perhaps.
But we are black and blind with falling soot.
We are burnt and scraped, our knees
set to fire with brine and brush
to harden our small hearts.
In the fairy tales, the sweep finds love
with a porcelain shepherdess.
After May day, we are turned from the table
to which we return, for the world gifts us
only sack cloth and ashes.
there is no cap coarse enough
to keep the soot from eye or mouth
No talisman of brass cap badges
to shame the master who sends them up
to fall from roofs and chimneys
to lodge in flues and suffocate
Whose son has fire set under him
his heels pricked to mend his pace
This is the cold fate of he who is alone
whose mother has died, left his body
for the world to take and make coal
and whose back is bent in youth
his scrotum set to eat itself away
we die knowing what is denied us
air and love, a clean wanting
we fall, we hope, to something warm
that union that sought us out
first as fire now as ash
has left us invisible, sooty faced
only grace lets us fall
A Benediction for Climbing Boys
1 June 2016