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Fearnought
(Poems for Southwell Workhouse)

The National Trust, 2006 - ISBN: 1-84359-251-7

      As presented on BBC Radio 4's Sunday Feature
      30 December 2007

      Click here for the BBC link

   

Of the many workhouses built in the nineteenth century, none survives in better condition than that at Southwell in Nottinghamshire. This book, designed and produced by Mario Petrucci between 2004 and 2006, is a poet's direct response to the Workhouse, its architecture and the people who lived, worked and died there.

Through this unique residency, poems were placed within the house, together with an activity sheet for families, schools and writers. These resources offer fresh impetus to the realisation that the study of workhouses through literature, as well as via history, is invaluable in understanding how we treat our poor.

The Fearnought Project was hosted by the National Trust and supported by Nottinghamshire County Council. The poetry collection (available below) also incorporates a series of haunting and inventive photographs, capturing through visual as well as poetic imagery this demonstrably historic space.

"These poems are powerful, deep and - surprisingly perhaps - musical."  Julian May, BBC Radio 4.

"This is literarily breath-taking stuff... This is the writing of somebody fully in control of his material in terms of the facts which matter, and in terms of how to make its materiality real to the reader. This is a writer interested as much in flaking paint and charred cooking pots as in human rights... This is opening little doors onto big issues in a way which is challenging and uncomfortable to any reader, uncomfortable but necessary."  Paul Wright, Writing in Education (NAWE, issue 47, Spring 09).

 

                    
 
FEARNOUGHT

 
Mornings
when I pull on this
jacket

I feel
through scuppered heels
each flagstone

melt. Melt
and rock to the greys
of sea. See how

they clad
me as they do the rest -
as they would

a winter vessel -
in wool wove stiff as
sheet metal against

cold so
fierce as to make flesh
turn against itself.

Yet even
the Queen's ship must
wait its tide

and I
await mine. With their
jacket I berth my

self against labour -
in this fleet ebb of life
resist each

rough swell.

 
Fearnought (or Fernought) was a coarse
woollen insulation for ships in the Arctic,
sometimes used to make hard-wearing
jackets for workhouse men.

 
                      FLAGSTONE /
                      AMMONITE

 
                      Split this house as
                      if a stone - strike it

                      with attention's edge
                      so where it cleaves (a-

                      long this slab / be-
                      hind that wall) is all

                      you get of creatured
                      bodies soft as yours

                      but caught between
                      twin rocks in times

                      more hard - whose
                      dreams were claws

                      of hammer-chisel
                      moving slow with

                      muddied light and
                      trailing grooves that

                      even scabs of time
                      can't heal. We at

                      least may choose: to
                      step right over or else

                      to use our hands these
                      vital hands as trowels

                      and every eye a living
                      pick uncovering how

                      each blow of work has
                      left its arc. Stoop low

                      enough. Here. And you
                      may see (who knows)

                      how life went cold.

 
BREAD

 
We're men half-
baked - swinging
lead-heavy sledges

over our heads
on elbowy sticks
of bread. Hour

by hour: men
of flour. Saved by
a pinch of salt.

Here because
we ought to use
our loaf. Because

men of fire eat
iron. Rust. Entire
nations. But we

float through days
on crusts. Dawn
to dusk each raft

the same. Like
us. Each slice we
are - adrift on

a basin of gruel.
Breakfast. Dinner.
Supper. One fuel.

And when at last
we rise to heaven
then I suppose

we'll be made
to mow His fields
divine with wheat -

move mountains
of holy yeast - and
reach back down

to knead (one
by one) each grey
cloud of dough.

 
The staple of the workhouse diet was bread.
‘Sledge' = sledgehammer.

 
SHANTY

 
Make me a mast
from a long man's bones

Make me a deck
from weeks of work

Make me a helm
from the rubbed-off

skins of oakum
Carve me a rudder

from doors that sever
sister from brother

Make me an anchor

Stitch me a sail
from peelings of spud

shaved so thin
they show the light -

a sail that light it
billows on a sneeze

But don't do
these - just break

that window
Give me

a breeze

 
                      STAIRS I

 
                      Here
                      we are the law.
                      Not just of where

                      to walk
                      but how to
                      look. So stare at

                      us well
                      because we lack
                      soft landings. Keep

                      eyes to
                      the floor or we'll
                      trip you back down -

                      plus a
                      bloody nose.
                      Let the earliest riser

                      among you
                      sneak up on us.
                      You'll find us always

                      on guard.
                      We will never
                      budge. Every step

                      you take
                      will make you
                      toe our same old line.

                      Each little
                      flight you fancy
                      returns you a grudge.

SARAH

"The use of knives and forks was unknown to them ...
  It required practice to enable them to get up and down stairs."

                        On ex-workhouse girls in domestic service.

 
Crock-breaker they call me.
Butter fingers. Useless for service
says Mistress. Always falling. Never

seen no forks nor knifes before
that morning. Nor silver. Had to
touch to check they was real. Reckon

I been falling all me life. That
work house first - this posh house
now - seems every house must have

its Master. Not my fault I'm
pretty. This head of curls. Fat
fist of good they done me. Falling

Sarah. And Master - when we
pass at the corner - wall to wall. Worse
than a boulder. Butter fingers says Mistress

scoffing butter. She don't know
the end of it. This pinny beginning to
hug me belly. In this house - the grime

behind each brick. No point
ruing it. Nothing else doing. I have
to keep falling. To be rid of it. Falling

down Master's stairs.

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NEW:  Fearnought is featured on the Workhouses website...

"A beautiful book — both in content and production. The poems are a sensory delight."

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To purchase Fearnought, please send full name and address to:

79 Lincoln Crescent

Bush Hill Park, Enfield EN1 1JZ

Enclose cheque for £7.95 (includes p&p) payable to The Bound Spiral.

Further enquiries to  mmpetrucci@hotmail.com

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copyright mario petrucci 2001  -  images copyright: mario petrucci 2006  -  images credit: kate fisher/mario petrucci 2006