Quarry: a Poem on Slate
Living back at home in North Wales, I spent my last summer running over to Llanberis every morning and working in a small shop that sold outdoor gear. Wiling away the hours by dreaming up my next big route, I was ready to leave at 4:59 pm with my ropes and bag ready. I thought little at the time of what this landscape means and how it’s used today, excited to spend my evenings on slate. In Wales once again, I find myself drawn to the mysterious quarried landscapes, the darker history of the land I’ve played upon and the people who I’ve been there with.
Synonyms for quarry: aim, chase, game, objective, prey, prize, quest, victim.
[aim, objective: 0m]
At first a path and then a quarried dip.
Around us: landscape-scars littered with rock
Both flat and sharp, I pass the stage where on
A day, hotter than this one now, I played on ropes bare-foot
And cut my heel on arrow-headed shrapnel shards.
A fence-line jumped, I see it there: the flat plain,
And at its centre, a perfect slated wall
Slanted some-ways like a sideways face.
The rock looks smooth and young from this safe distance,
Roughened only twice by two black sidelong scars from late night brawls.
And yet up close: a hundred years of plundered faults
Reveal what graphite lines can draw
Within a surface marked by chalk.
The outline now unfurls and here I touch what I might paint:
The objective prize, handed to me by none other than
Those who material removed. Whose signatures
These rockmen left are none between
Their violent strokes. Anyway and at this point – I find it
Hard to see the difference between such colours as violet
And grey when indeed they’re mixed with white.
[chase, quest: 1-11m]
Of that which here I’ll say, but before: let’s look upon
This line. At its base we view and aim survey,
A standing ledge ends thin and to a crest. Now what
I think I see is two thin seams for me to stitch.
It’s easy to ignore the rest when even air falls off and at each side.
Balance here, up and down and up again I try to
Weigh what’s writ and wrong and still in retrospect
I find it hard to toe the line. Perhaps it’s sad but know at least
That to succeed you might not need to care too much.
My absent feet kick flint
And fists find comfort in such faults in what I know
Are stones of head and tombs. I chose to risk my life
Where others had no choice, and like those men
My waist is ringed with tools to shield my way.
Proud or blind I am too sure to breathe where those lost breath.
Upon these instantaneous moves I reach up quick
To meanings only possibly known by those who write on secret caves
And systems of unnatural springs. Let me try and grasp at length
Their simple, ill-advised and easy illustrations of this land:
It seems that none of us can see and do pretend to feel.
This is to those whose stories I’ve heard none and might forget,
Whose land I use and think I leave no mark
But scores of white. I must apologise to earth and men:
It is too easy to ignore the cry of blade on slate
When here such surface pleasures do exist.
[prize, game, prey: 12 m]
On top I look on this: mine
Dilapidated province, stretching out from mountain pass
To village street, a tunnelled backward arc
Whose deep pits and abandoned metal fence-rolls
Have their own seedy appeal.
Is this all that’s left? Not quite:
A place at once alone in spite of itself
Does not neglect. What games we play here now
On walls made solely for our pleasure!
This is my estate: a puzzle problem inherited by quarrymen.
At any rate – I could also talk of things like streams and springs
Of which I know nothing of either. But even when
I stand above, I look upon the common image:
The history of a man and men I never took the time
To know and therefore surely cannot write.
[aim, victim: 0 m]
I’ll make one further point for here it seems
I’ve stitched a sentence to describe a faultless climb,
And in so doing forget what fumbling start I had.
I write from my point only, and ergo scratch out
So many voices in this landscape unaccounted for –
Overshadowed even by underground streams and
The bitter fragrance of a square inch to which I might devote
Twelve stanzas gone. What disturbs me is
A face: just one in a crowd. A petal curved beneath a rain-cold sky,
Cut in the underbrush.
I reach the end and back again,
And still these words do stray from what I mean to say:
I never intended to lead you on
Thereafter, but the best and worst never stay here long.
A landscape black in daylight looks horrid in the dark.
Written by Faye Latham:
Faye is a recent graduate in History of Art (MA) from the University of Bristol and an avid Welsh climber and mountaineer. Pursuing her writing and poetry, her body of work focuses mainly on North Wales, people and landscapes. You can see her perform at the Kendal Mountain Literature Festival this November. For more information, email email@example.com