Below the Avon

“At the height of the Bristol slave trade from 1700 to 1807, more than 2,000 slave ships carried a conservatively estimated 500,000 people from Africa to slavery in the Americas.” – Wikipedia article on the history of the city of Bristol, UK.

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Clifton Suspension Bridge, above the River Avon. Photo: Flickr CC Pablo Fernandez

Held tight between the Durotriges and the Dobunni
there is a paradox below the Avon.
Travel south (keep driving down the M4 scourge)
and go on further south,
towards the stones we battled over, till
abruptly, a dramatic scar across the land
(crossed by a leap in engineering) leads
down to a town a river goddess holds in her embrace.

Look closer – this is not an ancient paradise:
this slaver city, built by those not privileged
enough to see the wealth their broken backs
and subjugation built for us
to sit and drink our lattes in.
And this disputed territory,
where they once manufactured drudgery
and churned out countless factory-crushed lives,
now welcomes in the moneyed: hipsters, students, suits
…and me.
Where old tobacco wealth and modern diamond-blood collide –
This latest bondage no less slavery
Than that which came before, but more invisible
to us who live so far from those who serve us now.
We can pretend we do not know that in each step we take,
on every broken paving stone, we still
walk on five hundred thousand unmarked graves.

To this most unexpected place then comes
the Pilgrim, with the Thinker at his side,
to meet this tired, reluctant Advocate.
We three so different, but with souls that see each other
in our search for those few starry points
that blaze the light of the divine into the dark.
The pilgrim-radical, his spirit gentler than I thought
a warrior’s could be, told deep-enchanting stories, while
across a silent boundary,
five hundred thousand unseen, wide-eyed faces saw one of their own,
and so did I.
The Thinker, with his questions and his eyes
that rooted out the silence and the fury both.
And me – I’m not sure what I brought.
I was all Apple phones and car keys and despairing cynicism,
yet with something slowly breaking in,
wild flowers through untended stone,
once smooth hewn but now fractured with indifference and life.

And in the hipster cafes of this contradiction
(tea £3 a pot but pennies to the farmers),
we did not whisper when we called down fire from above
upon ourselves and those who have our pity and our grief.
We had three hours to raze states and empires to the ground
and I glimpsed just enough eternity to wish for more.

What are such encounters for, and what
are we who meet each other left with
when our ships return to other powers’ shores?
What are our wandering spirits seeking
when we call into an empty, night-tossed sea
and hear an echo of a voice replying,
hiraeth* returned?

We who long for freedom
are still indentured, still indenturing.
But we are also architects.
We build,
stone on stone,
hand in hand,
our fragile, shattered bodies the material
that shapes new ground.

And I will not forget his question,
“Do you still have hope?”
and how I wished I had the time to answer
(Time, the great Oppressor),
though I tried to stumble, word on word,
a tumbling of longings for the tyrannised.
And deep below the city stones,
five hundred thousand souls cried out an echo of this pain.

And you, seeking an ancient (subjugating) city, here
Where green and pleasant valleys fall
Toward the stones we battled over (though
I’ve never been quite sure who won the fight,
now that the white-robed men of power claim the land
that still the peasants do not have the right
to walk upon);
you may find yourself
caught between the Durotriges and the Dobunni
(keep struggling along the M4 road,
an English dirge to farms sustained by bureaucratic subsidies),
where once an erstwhile Avon claimed the land as all her own,
and still she cradles those who cry below.
We claim this city too, we radicals,
we idealistic, cynical and hopeful ones,
whose voices are not silenced by this age of chains and charred remains,
though we must strain to hear the halting song of those who went before.

© Léithin Cluan, 2016. For Rhyd Wildermuth and Jonathan Woolley.

Bristol Quay. Flickr CC Ubaían.

Bristol Quay. Photo: Flickr CC Ubaían

*Hiraeth: a Welsh word for which there is no translation, but which means something like a longing for home in the depth of the soul.

The Durotriges and the Dobunni were Iron Age tribes located in the area around the River Avon, not far from today’s Bristol.

The M4 motorway is a shining testament in concrete to heartless late modern capitalist infrastructure. :P

4 thoughts on “Below the Avon

  1. Great tribute to Rhyd and Jonathon’s visit and the five hundred thousand whose graves are unmarked – a gathering of radicals indeed! Angry, sad, yet full of hope.

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