Thursday, January 12, 2012

Andrew Burke

Manhole Covers

‘The beauty of manhole covers—what of that?
Like medals struck by a great savage khan,
Like Mayan calendar stones, unliftable, indecipherable.’
                                       Karl Shapiro, Manhole Covers (1968)

‘Bitten at the edges’, Shapiro said, ex-
act, like here in this coalmining town,
Shanxi Normal University campus to be
exact, where we have learnt to shallow breathe
over manholes in the broad pathways
where god-knows-what passes underground
and perfumes the sulphuric air as
slim ladies in stylish spangled jeans go
riding by, two to a bike, one pedalling, one
balancing lightly on the carrier, like
corps de ballet ballerinas at a rubbish tip.
Those are particles in the air that offend
rising from exotic embossed shields
of ancient khan warriors, the ex-
acts of history nothing to
the attack on us


The Clean Air Act of 1956

                     The sunshine of the Land
Of Sunshine is a gray mist now, the atmosphere
Of some factory planet: when you stand and look
You see a block or two, and your eyes water …

                         'Thinking of the Lost World' by Randall Jarrell (1965)

I dust off books from Shanxi Uni library –
the English books, that is. They are
donations from this or that organisation,
The Asia Foundation, Shanghai University,
or a library somewhere more salubrious
in the fabled West. Randall Jarrell
sits in a winding sheet of clean pages in
The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry,
Second Edition. Chill Linfen air was
sulphurous this morning, and (add
a thick mist) walking to class was
dangerous. The bus between
campuses had its foghorn on.
Shanxi students studying for a better life
should rebel against the mine owners
for a longer life. I teach
English history: ‘In response to
   the Great London Smog of
December 1952, the Government intro-
duced its first Clean Air Act in 1956.’
London’s death rate dropped. If I
know it, they know it, the bosses, as
their silver fins glide between weary donkeys
in the ancient streets of Linfin.


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