Great balls of fire – Keith Chandler’s The Goldsmith’s Apprentice

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Early_ultrasound

Early ultrasound scan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sadly, the lube applied to my intimate area was not recreational but medical.

Following numbness, blood, a phone call, I found myself sporting a knee-high backless number, cheeks sticking to a vinyl seat, and queuing along a corridor at the local hospital instead of registering my form before their morning lessons. Unexpected physical contact is stress enough (dinner at a friend’s house—shoes off, tablecloth to the floor and two playful kittens lurking beneath, intent on re-enacting the opening scene of Jaws—took me close to a coronary). So, physical contact was preying on my mind as I awaited the scan—and I’d yet to learn about the lube. Weeks earlier, cooing and ahhhing, I’d watched ghost images of my unborn daughter on the much same equipment. How times change.

A strength of Keith Chandler’s The Goldsmith’s Apprentice is its structure. In ‘Ultrasound (20 weeks)’ we’re in the maternity unit but, for Chandler’s speaker, the scan’s audio and visuals are troubling. The foetus has a ‘heart darkly pumping’, a ‘Mekon skull’ and shines ‘as if radioactive’. In the final stanza, Chandler is reminded of ‘bones I saw once / at the bottom of a pit / in Orkney, under a stone cist’. Perhaps Chandler is invoking Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: ‘Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries.’ But perhaps we can take heart from the human chain that connects us to our 5,000 year old brothers and sisters on Orkney. Towards the end collection, ‘Ultrasound (70 years)’ puts us back in the consulting room and the speaker sees ‘Three polyps (luckily benign) / cluster like molluscs on the rock of a kidney / while heaped in the distance / the mud banks of my upper intestine.’ Alluvial deposits are the nature of things. Rivers, once mighty arteries, silt-up and choke. To dredge them is to fight time.

Dessert_service,_Coalport_Porcelain_Manufactory,_probably_1830s-1840s_-_Harewood_House_-_West_Yorkshire,_England_-_DSC01657

Coalport dessert service (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These ideas play out across the collection. ‘Coalport Girls’ presents talent and tragedy: ‘Who like you / could magic up, plate after plate, / the fuzz of peach, the frosty glow of grapes? Or put a tear drop on the peony’s cheek  / fresh as your own / wet from the fields of Shropshire or East Wales?’ The repetition of ‘plate after plate’ reminds me of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice:

Never encourage the manufacture of anything not necessary, in the production of which invention has no share.

For instance. Glass beads are utterly unnecessary, and there is no design or thought employed in their manufacture. They are formed by first drawing out the glass into rods; these rods are chopped up into fragments of the size of beads by the human hand, and the fragments are then rounded in the furnace. The men who chop up the rods sit at their work all day, their hands vibrating with a perpetual and exquisitely timed palsy, and the beads dropping beneath their vibration like hail. Neither they, nor the men who draw out the rods or fuse the fragments, have the smallest occasion for the use of any single human faculty; and every young lady, therefore, who buys glass beads is engaged in the slave-trade, and in a much more cruel one than that which we have so long been endeavouring to put down.

There’s an uncomfortable disconnection between Coalport’s idealised images and the manner of their production, the girls ‘seated at trestles, piecework piled high / behind, in front, like tower blocks’. Also, at first reading, I distanced myself from these pitiful conditions, presuming that Chandler presents a nineteenth century hell. However, the girls’ own ‘frosty glow’ was snatched from them as a landslip ‘spilled casually downhill toward the Severn’, leaving them ‘dull as the slipware before it is ghost fired. This happened in Jackfield, Shropshire, in 1952 and images of the exhumed houses, uncovered in 2014, make for uncomfortable viewing.

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Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Photo credit: Gandalf’s Art Gallery – Flickr)

The title poem, ‘The Goldsmith’s Apprentice’, treads similar ground as the young apprentice, listening to the rules on day one, hears his death sentence: ‘You will breathe this atmosphere of dust / and soft percussion, dying at last / stoop backed, purblind, / your lungs lit up like a golden branch.’ ‘At last’ perhaps implies that the goldsmith will be waiting to extract the apprentice’s lungs to reclaim his gold in the same way that he has been periodically burning his ‘shoes, clothes, snot, sawdust’ to recycle every spec of gold expectorated. Or perhaps the apprentice, once he is the a husk of a man, will long for a merciful release.

Chandler’s portraits of working men and women transcend oppression and celebrate the workers’ skill and spirit. ‘Chemo Nurse’ sings with authenticity, recreating the banter of a brilliant bedside manner. The first five stanzas comprise a single breathless sentence. It’s only as the speaker pauses to reflect that we are permitted to draw breath. The poem reprises the nurse’s magic trick, plated up again and again.

There’s a tremendous amount going on within the collection’s 67 pages. ‘The Executioner’s Tale’, based on the account of a Filipino policeman, reads like the unflinching reportage of Dan O’Brien and lends a haunting, troubling humanity to the hardest of jobs while poems like ‘Skipping’ recollect the simplest pleasures with exquisite, painful nostalgia.

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