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138 x 216mm
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The Curfew Bell
Karen Jane Cannon
Set 1400 feet up in the Lowther Hills of southern Scotland, in a landscape scarred by the footprint of industry, The Curfew Bell clangs a warning—a baby born too early against a desolate backdrop bleak and snowy, amongst baaing sheep and remnants of leadmining works and grouse moors—a place of vanished villages and endless valleys, of motherhood and survival.
The Curfew Bell
(16th April, 1994)
From the ambulance I see the Curfew Bell,
a triangular frame arching skyward into prayer-hands.
In its belly the curved iron bell.
Once it clanged for miners lost deep underground
or children strayed onto saggy moor tops.
The bell should be ringing now—
my baby lost inside these hills, no womb-kicks
since breakfast, heart beat stilled
under drifts of spring snow.
We pass range after range of belly curves,
no footprint ever claimed
all of this,
the earthworks of tumbled villages
and old shafts carved of straining earth.
I’ve travelled this pass—
first in December snow,
Leadhills forming out of mist
and I’ve walked across the heavens
from Wanlockhead along Enterkin, the Covenanters’ pass,
northern lights flashing overhead.
But now I’m falling—Gas and Air
become low snow clouds, casting shadows
over the top of the world.
Shopping for a Cyclops Baby
There’s a story of a baby
born somewhere in Moffat, buried
inside a book of Scottish curiosities, lost
to ashen shelves.
I stare down the busy high street, wonder
at this coffined mystery, try to follow
a trail of silver coins
leading to a crib.
Was she hidden
at the Devil’s Beef Tub? Blessed
under the splash of Grey Mare’s tail?
No Google search will bring her back.
Did a midwife bring her bawling
into a tallow-lit world?
Soor ploom cheekbones sucking in
a clear moon-gaze?
There are shops selling all-butter shortbread,
tartan as soft as fontanelle,
mineral water purer
than St Andrew’s holy font.
History is enameled
onto engine plates, behind bull’s eye glass.
But there is no clue buried
in this town of boiled toffee hearts.
Moffat is a pursed mouth,
bagpipes let out a pitiful wail.
The earless ram stands watching,
deaf to the cries of a babe.
Hand in hand we stand behind police signs.
Beneath our feet a tonne of dynamite
is strapped to concrete—this first viaduct
was built to last and took the lead from hills
on trains that ran each hour. Above our heads
the cry of sparrow hawks who glide and watch
industries’ footprint fade—God’s Treasure House,
emptied and sold, leaves scars on bleak landscapes
and villages quickly fall to stone again.
The police puff through megaphones, escort
us down by force. We stand and watch the blast,
the pause before the past is lost. How fast
this revolution turns to history
yet took so many years to build by hand.
Karen Jane Cannon is a UK poet and author. Her debut pamphlet Emergency Mints was published by Paper Swans Press in 2018. She was shortlisted for The Bridport Prize in 2019, a finalist in the Mslexia Poetry Competition in 2017 and was commended for The Flambard Prize in 2014.
Her novel Powder Monkey (as Karen Sainsbury) was published by Phoenix in 2003.
Karen is a PhD candidate at the University of Southampton researching poetry and landscape. She lives in the New Forest, Hampshire. www.karenjanecannon.com
Seeing in the New Year
At Hogmanay we walked six miles,
down through Elvanfoot to Abington, past
the swollen stream, a dead sheep drinking
its own reflection.
Snow and rabbits everywhere, scut-tails bobbing
far into the distance—a crofter’s cottage, abandoned
in the fifties—yellow linoleum a reminder,
our time will become archaeology.
At midnight we struggled up,
through Crawfordjohn, Leadhills long since lost
to darkness. In the village
the Curfew Bell would be ringing
in the new year. We were too far
to hear its metallic tongue calling.
The Lowthers stood above us—
Drake Law, Dun Law, Broad Law.
Snowy flanks of Mild Scar sliced the valley.
An arctic hare sat up, shook snowflakes
from pale ear-shafts. I fell, crunching snow
into my own hollows.
Snow fell silently into itself.
Looking back, we’d already vanished,
lost in the white ash of the old year.
The retired coalminer came to our cottage,
eyes dark pits, told us
about the sparrow hawks shot on the moor,
protected eggs smashed in the nest.
We knew about the gamekeepers, saw them
each night, sitting in lay-bys
with shotguns, flashlights, waiting
for life to scuttle past—arctic hares caught
between seasons, pale-scut rabbits
eyes round moons, a wildcat stalking shadows—
these moors old breeding grounds
for flame-feathered grouse,
yet the Southern Upland Way beckons,
opening secret passages between hills
for us to lay first treads.
It is suicide to come here—
to lay rare eggs in nests of clanging heather bells.
They know this at the unconsecrated burial ground
at the foot of Green Lowther—suicides
brought from the valley on carts
to lie staring at swirling skies.
But this is where they come to live and die,
to hills as bare as eggs, crowning
the top of the world.
Top of the World
We bought a cake to celebrate your homecoming—
a white rocking horse with yellow mane and tail,
a blue rocker. You cried all the way
from Glasgow and up the Mennock Pass,
over-heating in baby clothing—wool cardigan,
knitted bonnet, bootees from another lamb
born somewhere along the Southern Upland Way.
Lambs everywhere back in April—latched
tight onto mothers, sucking in the Lowthers,
the milk of heather bells and fool’s gold
found on the silt floors of stream paths.
Summer when we drove you home—
lambs grown plump,
though deep bleats still stirred dry teats.
We said goodbye to the little girl in ITU,
gave a card to her mother which read:
Good luck from one little lamb to another.
When we arrived home
villagers threw silver coins into your crib, marveling
at how newborn you still looked.
I wince as she twists
your wrist, pops a tiny vein,
while you writhe and wail
your newborn lung-wail.
All around new mothers leak
at this primal sound.