A poem for the day – The Lost Apprentice

I spent a lot of time as a child in east Belfast, during what was, in hindsight, the last gasp of its life as an industrial culture. I remember horns and sirens at lunchtimes, an architecture of high red brick walls around factories that even then were probably scaling down production, my grandfather’s pride in the Skyvan wobbling into the air above Ravenscroft Avenue. This poem was written after a train journey to Bangor many years later, when the smell of the Connswater in summer overpowered me: those of you who are old enough to remember Belfast before the Lagan weir will know that the whole city centre used to stink like the east’s stream (the ‘slow green backwater’ of the poem) still does on hot days at low tide…

Anyway, it may sound corny to say that this came to me in a dream, but this came to me in a dream: unbidden, pretty much fully-formed. Certainly, I wrote it out in a few moments after waking and it changed little in the typing. And I’m interested in that because there’s nothing surrealist here: more a kind of slow-motion Mass Observation documentary effect, or something? And the disappearance of the apprentice seems to relate to the abductions and drive-bys of the Troubles, but in no conscious or designed way.

The Lost Apprentice

He arrived late and was turned away from the shift.
Blue light seethed on the road outside the factory,
there was no bus, and the streets were unfamiliar
with their skin-coloured shops and pavements sprouting grass.
He probed his grievance (was it his fault that today
was already this hot, or that he’d missed his lift?)
and followed the trail of a slow green backwater
towards distant traffic snoring on the overpass….
He idly cursed his siphoned luck, and was last seen
under the high bricks of a derelict warehouse,
asking directions perhaps…. When we found his gear
his new tools had rusted, but the bubble of air
in his spirit level was where it should have been,
his milk-and-sugared tea was warm in its thermos.

  • wee buns

    A whole poem delivered by dream: a great reason for early nights hey. I like the bleakness of the environment, (as in your other poem on the docks with that silver heron that you posted last week but that I didn’t get time to comment on). Siphoned luck is very neat. His left behind belongings reminds me of a man who was shot at the front of our house one morning in the 70s. On the way to school I found his yellow lunchbox in the long grass of the other side of the wall where he was sitting when he got shot. Later on the way home from school (he had since died in hospital) a neighbor’s dog was licking up the man’s blood, which really shocked me, more than the man being shot. I still don’t understand that.

  • Wee Buns, I’m glad this (and ‘Moscow Road’) did something for you. Sometimes capturing an atmosphere is all a poem wants to do. Your story of the dog is a very powerful example of how an image can stand in for something else and seem to concentrate and intensify the emotions aroused by the original experience. Poems sometimes get accused of avoiding the literal statement of some truth, but usually it’s more to do with that kind of powerful image taking over. And of course dreams seem to work like this too, where a trivial or nonsensical image can be suffused with disproportionately intense feeling.

  • Greenflag

    @ wee buns ,

    ‘I still don’t understand that.’

    Probably because it was’nt the dog owners ‘blood’ – Dogs are known to eat some strange stuff even cat crap I believe although I’ve never witnessed it .

    The difference between a dog and a cat is that if you die the dog will remain by your corpse and will not interfere with it whereas a cat even your own cat will start devouring you once it’s hunger pangs kick in. 🙁

    Dogs are ‘social ‘animals and are very much man’s oldest creation . Cats are -I hate to say this but it’s Friday -a different kettle of fish 😉

    Nice little pussy indeed . Thankfully it rarely happens but in an age where more elderly people live and die alone sometimes not noted for several days by neighbours etc it’s a wonder we don’t hear more from the tabloids on post mortem ‘fat cats ‘ But then the ‘fat cats’ of the financial services sector are hogging the limelight as they devour both the living and the dead 🙁

    Back to the poetic imagery – An evocative piece which in a few lines sums up a side of NI recent conflict experience without a mention of the ‘war’ word .

  • Greenflag, glad it worked for you.

    As for cats, I don’t think mine will necessarily wait till I keel over. She has that hungry look…

  • WB, the more I think about it, the more I see connections between the two poems that I hadn’t noticed. Very perceptive, and useful to have it pointed out!