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Bewildering Stories

Industrial Poems

by Oonah V. Joslin

Challenge 380 Response

In what way is John Stocks’ “The Late Night Martin Kellner Show” related to Oonah V. Joslin’s “Tapping the Salamander,” in issue 379?

These two poems seem, on the surface, to have much in common. The backdrop is that of industry: in John’s poem, the coal mine; in Oonah’s, the steel works. But both use similar language in describing the dirty toughness of the mills.

JS: the grime and the grimness,
the slag heaps and the stagnant canals.

OVJ: grim grey nugget
a fume
of stinking vapours wound around the town.

But in John’s poem, the boys plan to leave the zone of industry, escape to romantic Paris:

we will make a craft of leaving

Excellent use of ‘craft’ there, John; it makes a nice rhyme with ‘graft’.

Whereas in Oonah’s poem the industry is the one leaving. The salamander, the living burning heart of steel, is dying.

It is also evident from the beginning of the poems that John’s has a much more personal connection. He writes in the 1st person plural of the collective need for escape. Oonah writes in the 3rd person. There is feeling both for the ‘beast’ as she calls it and for the town’s people for whom it is

accursed yet beloved

But this is more akin to the slaying of a worm than escape from:

families that smother us
With their hopes and well-intentioned love

And maybe the difference is partly that as a girl she would not have been considered:

too soft for graft,

if she wanted to be a poet.

On a biographical note, Oonah has lived in a steel town, Port Talbot, for a while but she was brought up in an Ulster market town. John’s poem shows a much more intimate connection with “the grim north.” Both poems draw on images of an industrial past, but I think what they have most in common is:

We belong in libraries, lecture halls,
Drinking Sauvignon Blanc in smoky cafes

Meet you at Les Deux Magots, John.

Copyright © 2010 by Oonah V. Joslin

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