Daily Bread

1We have cried often when we have given them the little victualling we
2had to give them; we had to shake them, and they have fallen to sleep
3with the victuals in their mouths many a time.
4               (parent of children working at a textile mill, to an
5               1832 Parliamentary inquiry into child employment)
6I. They cry for children too tired to cry for themselves,
7daughters twelve, eleven, eight -- eyes
8shutting down as a grate's banked coals shut down
9at midnight, in the rising damp called 'home.'
10Too tired to eat after eighteen hours feeding
11looms whose steel teeth grind insatiably,
12the girls will be offered up again at dawn.
13Yet they are the lucky ones, to work where skylights
14hold swatches of the unaffordable blue.
15Imagine these girls' mine-trapped cousins, hauling
16black rocks on sledges up tunnels of black air:
17half-undressed, belted, harnessed, saturated
18with the oil-blackened water they crawl through
19pumping 'the lifeblood of British industry.'
20Flogged for talking, Margaret Comeley, aged
21nine, can sometimes close her mouth around
22a piece of muffin .- if she manages
23to keep it from the rats, 'so ravenous
24they eat the corks out of our oil-flasks.'
25Sarah Gooder fills her mouth with song
26'when I've light, but not in the dark; I dare not then.'
272. Here is a working girl so filled with light
28 she is pure song: her sun-bright bodice shines
29 in counterpoint with her blue overskirt,
30 and, from her forehead's crescent of white linen,
31 tapering light blazes a white path
32 down arms and wrists to folds of spread blue cloth,
33 like moonlight piloting the tide's refrains.
35 lucky enough to live in the Delft house
36 where Vermeer's eye and brush could catch the spill
37 of morning light as her brief peacefulness
38 brimmed over, serves here as a celebrant .-
39 bread heaped up on the altar-like table,
40 wine transubstantiated into milk
41 whose brilliance seems the source of the room's light
42 she pours forever from the earthenware's
43 black core. His pose; yet -- all hers -- underneath it
44 (and signalled in her fixed eyes' unconcern
45 for the beholder) such complete immersion
46 in what she does, that she is all she does
47 and it is she, this offering-up of day.
48 And he? When he was forty, the Sun King
49 invaded Holland. No one wanted art.
50 In debt to his baker for three years' worth of bread,
51 Vermeer, according to his widow, falling
52 'into a frenzy,' passed 'from being healthy'
53 in 'a day or a day and a half ... to being dead,'
54 'the very great burden of his children ... so taken to heart.'
553. Knowing the earth is closer to the sun
56 in winter won't revive the street person
57 sleeping towards cold death in a bus shelter.
58 Bread in a painting won't cure stomach ache.
59 So Margaret dragged her great burden of coal
60 while Sarah sat terrified in the dark,
61 and neither knew Vermeer's poised working girl,
62 broke bread with her, shared her breaking light.
63 The painting stood by, helpless to save them
64 or him, and looking at it now cannot
65 help anyone. Yet, it can cry for them,
66 as parents take their children's grief to heart:
67 the beads of salt, shimmering on the bread
68 like diamonds, can be tears the two girls shed
69down where no light sang their preciousness.
70The cradled pitcher's brim can be their hearth,
71since it (and not the sky's cold mine of stars)
72pours out what cannot shelter us, but feeds
73a hunger no daily bread can fill: for light --
74light that, like coal, comes from our earth; hunger
75that, unlike grief, is inexhaustible.

Notes

34] Tanneke Everpoel: the ."Kitchen Maid." of painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Back to Line
Publication Notes: 
Mining for Sun (London, Ontario: Brick Books, 2000): 110.
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire