Bridge Poetry by Joseph Butler, the “Blacksmith Poet”
You know, poetry and engineering….they should get together more often. As an example, here’s a fine poem written by Joe Butler, originally for a special Rotary Lecture at Shepperton, after a conversation with Chris Wise and Ed McCann in Expedition’s London studio, 2013. The poem was commissioned by by Bill Hewlett, Costain’s Technical Director.
Bridge Poem #1
A stone’s throw, maybe, or perhaps
to be more accurate, a bowshot’s length away.
And, if you cared to bend your back to oars,
just minutes in a crabbing rowboat,
course set counter to the current’s force,
the river’s slap insistent on your leaky boards.
But always that sense, as you stared across,
that what you gazed on was another country.
True, the smoke that rose above the thatch
that huddled on the farther bank
came, in all likelihood, from hearths
no different to your own. The old man by the water
mending nets could be your grandfather.
And you might hail him, gesture, wave;
but, just as likely, turn away – dismiss him
as you would a dream, a figment of your night-time mind
the river’s intervention running like a liquid borderline
between the states of sleep and wakefulness.
It’s soil that binds us to a kinship, common ground
that makes us fellows: friend or foe.
A territory’s that span of earth it takes a day to cross on foot.
And Thames runs like a gash between the Saxon lands
of Mercia on the northern bank and Wessex to the south.
When William, the conqueror king, left blinded Harold
dying on the beach at Hastings the Roman bridge
at London had long fallen to decay.
He had to march to Wallingford in Oxfordshire
to make his crossing to the north.
Fast forward through centuries: a man who’s made a life
designing bridges sits in a West End studio. The walls
are lined with photographs of structures he’s conceived.
A drawing pad lies open on his knees. He flicks his pen:
a bow of steel appears. Again – the outline of a piling.
His bridges span the Thames, the Tees. The spars
of their suspension fan like sails, concrete blockwork gleams.
The line the decking cuts from bank to bank is irresistible.
“I count it a success,” he says, “when the longing
that the lines express reflect a yearning in the land
to join at just that point.”
As though he’d reinstated something that was lost.
“And if I get it right,”
(the bridge commissioned, laboured over, raised)
“I’ll go and sit and, in my mind, dismantle
every nut and bolt, each welded section till at last
I’m left with just the walkway running out on emptiness.
I watch the men and women tread out on the void:
the city gent, his briefcase swinging to each stride
whose leather heels strike soundlessly on air.
A Mum and Dad lift children to a non-existent parapet
to stare down at the water’s churn below.
And at the mid-point, high above the stream, a pair of lovers
catch the other’s eye: run unsupported
through the firmament to clasp in an embrace.
I watch,” he says, “then drop my gaze. I look away –
they’re braided in a kiss so fierce it sets the air ablaze.”
About the poet:
Blacksmith poet, Joseph Butler, was born in Oxford in 1962. He has earned his living as a farmer, teacher, and boatbuilder as well as blacksmithing. His first published book is Hearth Stones: these poems grew out of working with a family of 3 generations of blacksmiths in an Oxfordshire forge, they are linked up with the Greek myth of Hera and Hephaistos, the crippled god of fire and metalworking, and patron of craftsmen, and bound up with his own family drama. This is his first, exhilarating poetry collection.
“Joseph Butler’s first full collection Hearthstone is stunning. It keeps to its themes of violence and transformation, both human and material, with an unbending clarity of vision and linguistic exactness. These poems are all crafted things, with the stalwartness and grace of perfect ironwork. They mark without question the appearance of a major talent.” — Bernard O’Donoghue
“A striking new talent, he bring the skills of is craftsmanship to his poems. In just a few words he unlocks a new world. The reader inhales its atmosphere…” — Rachel Campbell-Johnston The Times.
You can find Joe’s poetry in Hearth Stone, published by Two Rivers Press