Four hours into the dark I’d fall asleep
for seconds, then wake to the scream
of gears, as the belt started up
and the formed tubes dropped to the rack,
still bright from the fire:
sometimes I had to step in over the teeth
with a crowbar and straighten them out,
the heat flowing back through my arms and into my heart,
the rack shifting under my feet, while I bobbed and swayed
and watched for the misalignment that might kill me;
and sometimes the wheels turned smoothly all night long
while I sat in the cabin and gazed off into the lights
of the freight yard, where trains slid by
like the trains in a film about war time or mass transportation,
fresh snow drifting in waves between brickwork and gables,
or standing a while at the door, till it came to nothing.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2008. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editors in 2008 were Rosemary Goring and Alan Taylor.
Few writers are as ambidextrous as John Burnside. Like Iain Crichton Smith he is prolific and, like Crichton Smith, as adept at composing poetry as he is fiction. It has often been said that his novels have a poetic quality. Less remarked on is the novelistic element in his poetry. Nightshift at the Plugmill, a title which echoes (at least for us) Tom Waits’ album Nighthawks at the Diner, could be an episode in one of his novels – Living Nowhere springs to mind – distilled to make something magical and unforgettable.
A long time ago, I worked twelve-hour night shifts at the steelworks on Corby, Northants – “Little Scotland” as it was called. I was assigned to the plug mill, and it was my job to clean out the insides of the tubes with pressurised air, count them off in batches and mark them up, then make sure they didn’t run off the racks in such a way as to hit the conveyor at a dangerous angle – as one tube did on my watch, flying high into the air, then bouncing off the rack and just missing the little cabin where I had dozed off at around two in the morning.
Most of the time, though, it was quiet, as I waited for the next batch of tubes, and I would stand at the big doors, looking out into the night, and breathing the cool air – and the poem originates there, in those long moments of watching in the small hours, and the tug of the distance from across the yards, calling me away to a cleaner and cooler and perhaps more generous world that – like so many of my fellow workers – I didn’t quite believe was there.