This is a dark, new poem. A few days ago I heard Prof. Jean Walton present a memoir chapter about revisiting her childhood home in Vancouver, B.C. She used topgraphic and geological maps to show the estuary of the rivers around Vancouver as the background for her description of visiting a place where it rained incessantly and where the people were prepared to be driven from their homes at any moment by a flood. I was struck by one of these maps, which showed vast underground waterflows under the land, larger than the rivers above. This reminded me that I had been studying US Geological Survey maps of my native Southwestern Pennsylvania, and I had been struck by how mountainous the terrain was and how everything was covered with old coal mines and iron mines. I had read stories about sink holes opening into old mines or into flooded limestone caverns, and then I remembered two places: "The Swamp," in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, where I attended college for a few years, and a sink hole in Scottdale, Pennsylvania where I spent my childhood. This poem is an improvisation, bringing together these images. 

They called it The Swamp,
and although much of the lakeshore
was wetland, weed- and frog-
infested, lily-pad-mosquito-land,
everyone knew, when you said it
with that certain intonation
voicing italics and initial caps,
that you meant The Swamp.
It was a pond, reed-fringed
water a shallow cover for floor
of mud from which noxious vapors
bubbled, and where foxfires glowed
on certain moonless nights.
Beneath the mud, though none could see it
was a water-filled cavern
of unknown depth. I was shown
the Geological Survey map whose legend
denominated a place with no known bottom.

Locals take that on faith:
for generations it’s been the place
where useless vehicles, scrap iron
and dead refrigerators are dragged,
pushed with some danger to the townsmen
as they go knee-deep in sucking mud
until their offering is far enough in
for whatever it is that wants things
to begin its inexorable pulling.
Within a day an old jalopy
is nothing but two round headlights,
glass frog-eyes, then nothing
as by the next morning the swamp pool
resumes its perfect flatness, its mud
as uniformly flat as a well-made bed.

I remember a field
we were not allowed to play in —
and playing there anyway
my friends and I discovered
the vertical maw into blackness
we learned was an abandoned mine.
One day it had been a cornfield;
the next the shaft had fallen in.
In a town criss-crossed with forgotten
mines, it could happen anywhere:
holes the size of pancakes, holes
just big enough to swallow a bully,
an arrogant preacher, a rival
(if only one could make them appear!)
Soft ground was best, but even
a sidewalk crack, a storm drain opening,
a gymnasium floor or a toilet
could give way into a sinkhole,
a cenote, a sudden burst
of Karst topography. Someone you really
didn’t like could be swept away
into an underground river or fall,
fall, fall beyond the length of rope
to a dull thud at the hard place
between the earth’s crust and mantle.

We came back again and again to see it,
to measure how black
its blackness could be.
Tar, coal, obsidian, ink: nothing we knew
was blacker than this cavern-hole.
We threw soft coal, and chunks
of road gravel, iron slag
and a 16-ounce soda bottle
as hard as we could from a safe overhang.
No echo answered our probing.
So far as we knew, it had no bottom,
as though the mine below
had been mined from below
by subterranean demons.
Although we stopped playing there
and walked a long way 'round
the hillock that humped over it,
in dreams we walked its maw-edge,
lost our bearing, missed one another’s
outreached hand of rescue,
or were pushed
and worse by far than the nightmare
of falling into it was the dread
of what might come out of it,
if it wanted to, and was hungry enough.
What if, at night, some shambling Thing
crept into our cellars, filling great sacks
from our coal bins, returning the fuel
to the mountain depths? What if we went,
as we sometimes did, to stoke the furnace
at the stroke of midnight
and came eye to eye with It?

I read of places
where sink holes appear
without warning, some watered
beneath with underground rivers,
but others just chasms, cave vents
or rifts between two angry seams
of geologic tension. Cybele’s
temple was just such a place,
its altar an opening into darkness
that drove women mad, and men
to self-mutilation.
Just such a place
is the entrance to Tartarus,
nine days below Hell.

One falls, not into open space
like Milton’s bad angels
(who enjoyed a feast of starlight
while they plummeted) —
but no, one falls
     into an ever-narrowing funnel
     of cold darkness,
into a place where legs
    and arms are useless
until there is nothing of you
     but a head screaming upwards
towards an ever-dwindling
     pinpoint of light.

Our earth is a shifting island of sea and magma,
Swiss-cheesed with sink holes, cenotes,
Blue Holes at the bottoms of coral seabeds —
Something riddled with Nothing,
orbiting a self- regulated explosion,
sun hurtling around and away from
the Black Hole at the rift of space-time,
Every moment of existence here averts
an infinity of empty, unpeopled stars.


  1. I'm so glad my salt marshes opened up your swamps and sinkholes, Brett. This is the best possible aftermath of a reading, to find that it has inspired meditation and writing in others, and then to be able to continue the colloquy in the virtual world of immersion . . .

  2. ShirlChilders aka Prof Jean Walton!

  3. Brett,
    Thanks for sharing your poem, inspired by Jean's catchments. Reading the poem, I felt the sinkholes were still haunting you.
    Great to meet you at the catchment talk.


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