David Butler

Dockers, 1930

First light.
The descent from the tenements.
Flat-caps and donkey-jackets, shoulders
hunched against an easterly would skin you.
Keen-eyed, skint, eager for the scrimmage about
the rough pulpit to catch ‘the read’, the foreman
meting out who works, who idles.
A hard graft for the chosen.
Scant light
aslant through moiling
dust inside the dusky hold of a collier
where rope-muscled, calloused hands
rough-handle shovel-hafts, scraping, angling,
hacking irascible black-flecked phlegm until,
begrimed like pantomime blackamoors, they emerge
to carry their thirst like a wage and pay out
the bitter tithe – the match-boxed shilling
that buys the wink and nod.
It’s that or starve.

This poem first appeared in The Children of the Nation: Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland edited and introduced by Jenny Farrell (Culture Matters, 2019)

David Butler © 2019