Sleeve Catching Fire At Dawn — Madeleine
Smith/Doorstop, 2018 £5.00
Rubbernecking Through The Ages
Sleeve Catching Fire At Dawn involves time travel. At various points we land in the mid 1500’s and make it as far as 1830 before returning to the time we came in at. On that journey, we learn about human nature. We learn about our capacity to support each other and to live in harmony with the world. We’re also introduced to our capacity for brutality.
Despite their historical settings, almost all these poems are relevant today. In ‘English Miners Request the Help of German Miners, 1561’ and then ‘German Miners Reply to the English Miners, 1561’, we’re made aware of the way Europe has helped the UK out of troubles over the centuries, and of course our amazing similarities. In the latter poem, the German miners respond to their English counterparts with ‘Of course we drink. / Ale and beer/ Your sausages stink to high heaven’ and later follow it up with
At which hour of the clock
should we arrive on your coast and where
shall we build the brewery?
We see further examples of mutual support, between mankind and the animal kingdom in ‘Trade’:
Sheep, you trade us wool
to build our churches whole.
We trade you love, tufty grass
and tend you on the pass.
While these are examples of positive relationships and interactions, there’s also a sense of unbalance. The German miners are coming to help the English miners because the English want something they don’t have. In ‘Trade’, humans take valuable wool and offer in return grass that’s freely available.
In ‘Cows Watching the First Passenger Railway, 1830’, cows comment on the experience of watching a train go by:
when flowers were still, we considered
man’s achievements. The farmers
felt the tremor from the earth before we did,
tracking it from field to
empty pails. Our spines trembled.
But we could not take our eyes away.
After reading this collection, I was ready to despair at our capacity for awfulness to each other and the world around us. However, as the last line of ‘Cows Watching...’ has it, I could not take my eyes away.