In 2008 Arts Council England invited poets to commemorate the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act by writing a poem on the theme of enslavement.

Paul Farley has published three books of poetry to widespread acclaim and received many awards, including the Forward Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, and in 1999 he was named the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. He has also written a study of Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives, and edited a Selected John Clare. He works as a teacher, freelance writer and broadcaster, and lives in north Lancashire.

Cloaca Maxima

I

Sewer-jumping in a childhood twilight
the boy looks up a moment and feels something.
Water thick as Bovril doesn't move.
There's a holding of the breath in a concrete outfall.
It's an ear-to-the-rail moment,
or pipe-work, leading back to God-knows-where,
before an iron door slams shut on the splendours.

II

Moment containing all the fine escapees
of history, crawling through the dark, emerging
from unmarked graves aligned to navigations
they dug and died alongside. One long chain gang
raised from tobacco fields unlocked from work-songs
they sung in warmer, thicker air - If you
Don't believe I'm a sinkin, look what a hole I'm in -

the blistered of the Dismal Swamp Canal
who've travelled via the Underground Railroad
and Anacharsis Cloots - what's he doing here? -
with Representatives of the Human Race
all covered in shit, blinking in the light of day,
the shut-in, nameless multitudes, the lost bones,
the leg-irons and the long shanks and the ledger-
entered of Goree Island: all raised up!

III

Look at these three, marching through the visible field
from left to right, a ragged and sooty sentence
in the buttery, limestone light, in the middle of a century.
Marching into three futures long since past.

The little one says to the big one: Who is this bloke?
in a lost vernacular of Parisian sweeps
which the camera couldn't record. To which the big one
replies: Never mind. Keep looking straight ahead

though he's secretly intrigued. The apparatus
is a little like when a chimney grate's sealed off
by a canvas rig. And how many days has he seen
as a pinprick at the end of a carbon flue?

The middle one has climbed towards this light
so many times already in his short life,
and you want to tell him how long he's lasted in it
where so many others are shut in the dusty dark.

IV

Or think in terms of a movie shot
on a shoestring, where the eye is drawn
to the extras who are swapping hats
and passing by again and again.

Only replace its flimsy set
with sewers and ditches and holes in the ground,
and a scene that lasts millions of feet;
and the background babble with the sound

of a bullwhip that reverberates
down dark tunnels, and the same faces
come round eventually if you wait
for a few lifetimes and remain in your places.

V

The sleepers' hands are put to work.
Workhouse children unsnarl looms
and sharecroppers shuck peas from pods
and cocklers rake through dark mortar
and cotton pickers twist the buds
and bonded women solder boards
and run the fabric through the foot
and guide it down the miles of seam
and punkah wallahs pull the cord
and galley rowers bend through oars
and railroad workers tap the rails
and drainage diggers heft the spade
and all of this and so much more
is happening in the place of dreams.
The sleepers' hands are put to work.

VI

And this is what the boy has seen: the dreams
kept hidden, either by great distances
or the pearlescent blind eye that we need
to grow to keep the world under our noses
safely removed. The millions of mixed shades
are still running beneath our surfaces
and visible to those who just step sideways
anywhere: a city square at dusk,
a sun-warmed wall asking to have an ear
lent to its crumbling roughcast, old outfalls
like this one, where a boy gave way to thought
thirty years ago, on a backfield, in the north.