Although my poem, Grandfather Clock, was published in The Ashmolean Magazine back in Summer 2007, I have only just received my copies. I wrote the poem during my residency at the museum. I was looking to write a poem that connected the Bicentennary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the UK with an evocative item in the museum’s collections.
I stumbled upon this grandfather clock up on the top floor of the doomed museum building. It seemed just the piece: it was made in the 1700s, over 200 years old, and the hands that cut and dressed its panels likely belonged to slaves. I stood there awhile, watching that ancient clock count down the minutes, feeling around for a line, a thought, a word, that might be poetry.
It occurred to me that little need ever change in a clock’s life. This one was particularly fortunate. It was unlikely that woodworms would get at it, here in the curated womb of the Ashmolean. Here it was, its slender fingers counting down time as effortlessly as the supple fingers of an ancient imam at his prayerbeads… yet, it seemed to lack a certain gravity, this grandfather clock; I thought I’d pass.
Then the thoughts arrived: things hadn’t changed that much since the so-called Abolition. In those days, the life of a slave was certainly ‘nasty, brutish and short’. In 2007, there was not one African country in the top fifty countries with the highest life expectancy in the world. Instead, the list of 24 countries with the lowest life expectancy in the world was solidly African. Even the list of the bottom fifty countries was predominantly African, but for Afghanistan and six other countries.
No, things hadn’t changed that much in 200 years. The average Swazi citizen died at 29 years [The Economist’s figures]. The average European could expect his full three score and ten years. I decided I’d write the poem after all.
I give you Grandfather Clock.
especially in here,
you’d think that time stood still.
In this tame home
& finely-crafted gems
from the froth of life
and fixed forever on quiet walls,
you’d think that time stood
in here – and you’d be wrong, of course
for what still stands here
(still, that is,
but for those quiet arms,
quiet, that is,
but for that steady counting down of time
from one second,
to the next century)
what stands still
after all this time,
is this grim sense
of repetitive things
what stands still,
after all this time,
are bleak statistics from Africa,
whose men still die at twenty-nine
whose seed still drown in sea-crossings
whose servitude is still assured
by the iniquities of Trade.
you’d think that time stood still, but
what stands still is the grandfather clock
who coils onto his metal springs
a bicentenary’s worth of time
and pays it out in steady,
that whittle every hour;
and with each crossing of those two arms,
another thousand die to AIDS and
another thousand infants and their wicker baskets
slip away in a red stream fed by the Trade in Arms.