Poetry London Clore Prize 2018 COMMENDED 1: Under London by Victor Tapner

  Joseph Bazalgette, Victorian civil engineer
  and builder of the city’s sewer network

As the lid closes
on Hammersmith Road,
muffling the crunch

of brewers’ carts,
stifling shouts
from laundry windows,

he follows Mr Peters
down the manhole ladder
into the sour breath

of the weir chamber
at Counter’s Creek.
Come September,

with the sluices open,
he’d be up to the top
of his boots in foul water,

but for now
the tunnels serve
as quiet caves,

the Fleet and Tyburn
funnelled
under cobbled alleys,

carrying sediments
of hillside streams
that once washed London’s vales

before the Silent Highwayman
sailed down with the tide,
swathed in a fog of cholera.

Here, away from daylight,
he finds an hour’s shelter
from the storms of Westminster

that have stripped
so many nights of sleep,
functionaries who say

he’s draining
the nation’s cash to the sea.
Through the flickering

of Mr Peters’ lamp
he surveys brick arches,
a locking gate,

while a maze of junctions
crowd his head,
months when contours blurred

as he mapped these veins,
outflows that can take a surge
like blood to the brain,

days when he loosened
his collar to breathe,
crushed by the city’s weight.

 

Judge’s Report by Kwame Dawes


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