03 September 2015

Poetry Thursday - Spark Catchers by Lem Sissay

Poetry in situ, Olympic Park, 2015
Near the site of this wooden structure (with its "Danger, high voltage" signs - the transformers that give the power to the entire Olympic site) in Olympic Park once stood the Bryant & May match factory. The poem etched onto it was the first poem commissioned for the park,  ‘Spark Catchers’ written by Lemn Sissay. It remembers the Victorian socialist feminist Annie Besant, who led the Matchgirls Strike in 1888, the first un-unionised strike in British history.

"The incendiary poem plays on the double meaning of the word ‘strike’ and also evokes images of the flame of the Olympic Torch. The matchgirls strike was sparked by the sacking of one of the workers but was ultimately against the 14 hour days, low pay, unfair deductions from wages and the toxic working conditions from the phosphorous used in match making" says Sissay on his blog.
He talks about it in a video made in 2012, before the poem was etched into the structure, and also in a Front Row interview on BBC here (it starts at the 13-minute mark), at a time when surface-to-air missiles were to be situated, as part of the protection for the Olympic site, on the roof of the former factory.
In its pristine glory, 2012 (via)
Other poems are engraved and carved around the Park – Tennyson’s Ulysses outside Chobham Academy, Carol Ann Duffy’s Eton Manor in the north of the Park, Jo Shapcott’s Wild Swimmer along the Park’s waterways, Caroline Bird’s The Fun Palace on the Podium in the south of the Park, and John Burnside’s Bicycling For Ladies near Lee Valley VeloPark.
The Bryant & May factory was redeveloped in the 1980s, one of the first urban renewal projects in the area, and is now part of a gated community.

And now, at last, the poem -

Spark Catchers by Lemn Sissay

Tide twists on the Thames and lifts the Lea to the brim of Bow
Where shoals of sirens work by way of the waves.
At the fire factory the fortress of flames

In tidal shifts East London Lampades made
Millions of matches that lit candles for the well-to-do
And the ne’er-do-well to do alike. Strike.

The greatest threat to their lives was
The sulferuous spite filled spit of diablo
The molten madness of a spark

They became spark catchers and on the word “strike”
a parched arched woman would dive
With hand outstretched to catch the light.

And Land like a crouching tiger with fist high
Holding the malevolent flare tight
‘til it became an ash dot in the palm. Strike.

The women applauded the magnificent grace
The skill it took, the pirouette in mid air
The precision, perfection and the peace.

Beneath stars by the bending bridge of Bow
In the silver sheen of a phosphorous moon
They practised Spark Catching.

“The fist the earth the spark it’s core
The fist the body the spark it’s heart”
The Matchmakers march. Strike.

Lampades The Torch bearers
The Catchers of light.
Sparks fly Matchmakers strike.


1 comment:

Sandy said...

Wow! I didn't know all this. Thanks!