This poem is inspired by the films of Mitchell and Kenyon who were two enterprising businessmen in England at the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth and when film was a very new medium they had the great idea of filming lots and lots of people and then going to the local fair, setting up a temporary cinema and charging everyone that they had filmed a penny to come and see themselves on the big screen. The films lay undiscovered; they were actually stored inside milk churns and they were found in the back of a chemist shop quite recently and restored to most of their original glory by the British Film Institute.
They’re here to make money, the men distinguished
from the crowds they move among
by white hats and walking sticks,
to capture as many people as possible
for their fairground bioscope shows.
Come see yourselves on the screen as living history!
And history sets up its nordenograph and rolls
and vacuums in the girls in shawls, the men and boys in caps,
the entire rollicking sea
of spinners and doffers and little tenters
departing the factory gates at six
like a nation’s exodus.
Everyone wears clogs. Everyone has a dinner to get to.
But the dock of a quarter-day’s pay for a minute of horseplay
is no longer over their heads
and so they jostle, momentarily, blurred face by blurred face,
to smile or to bow, for the transmission of grace
in the space near the cinematographer
as though the camera cast out a fraught pool of light
in exchange for their imprint
and they are standing in it.
The women loiter less. A handful of men doff caps, then laugh
or shake incredibly white, wide handkerchiefs
at whoever may prove their witness:
themselves, their wives, coal miners, tram conductors,
Boer War veterans, Lloyd George in the wings – who knows –
the King – not to mention the unthinkable yet-to-be-born,
not to mention me. And always,
in every factory-gate frame,
like an offering up of driftwood
out of the indeterminate mass
after its comb and polish
or the crystallisation of salt from a smoky suspension,
children linger longest in the foreground,
shoving, lampooning, breaking the line,
or simply staring back at us, across the lens’s promise,
as though we still held Passchendaele in our pockets
and could find a way to save them.
They grin and grin – not yet, not yet –
while in a corner of the screen, a cart horse stumbles,
flickers, flashes into darkness
where the cellulose nitrate stock rubbed off inside the milk churn.
from Through the Square Window (Carcanet, 2009), © Sinéad Seadhna Morrissey 2009, used by permission of the author and the publisher.