To Bristol in Autumn A gold plated shovel* after 'To Autumn' by John Keates
Bristol City Poet Kat Lyons' poem for State of the City 2023, part of Festival of the Future City.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
If the year was a digestive biscuit we’d only have a mouthful left,
barely enough to dunk. We’re down to crumbs and frankly, this season
has been cooked too long. Now change hums loud as bees.
Wasps argue in your alleys, drunk on rot and last year’s crop of
students spread their leaves and watch the seedlings sway.
Yes, you can be beautiful. We’ve watched the silvered mists
festoon your bridges, Sunday-walked beneath crisp skies
studded with balloons. But this is no pastoral; and
these days, we bring the bins in, not the sheaves. Your squirrels look stressed
and clutch their nuts protectively, and it’s hard to feel mellow
when so many harvests are so lean. But we are gleaners,
plucking treasure from the winnowed husks of shops. We find fruitfulness
in decay, kindle Sparks behind locked shutters and
light up your streets again. Winter is a stranger sitting too close
on the train. Our rent and fuel bills creep but we hold tight
to possibilities, to the spring inside the soil, the friend
we don’t yet know. We don’t stand still. We stream
through brand new stations, eddy around closed bridges. Map the flow of
our migrations, how the marks of our desire lines shift and fade. Your pavements
are grazed by flocks of scooters now, your soundtrack scored by the
rattle as we race them up your hills. Bristol, do you remember
horse-drawn carriages? Your roads unpaved, unlit? You’re still maturing—
at 650 years old you’re not exactly young but you carry your centuries lightly.
You’ve grown stylish as you’ve aged; today you wear the sun
low and casual, tugged across your greying sky. Sit down,
let’s talk about nothing very important, let’s watch the gulls conspiring
with the pigeons to steal crisps, let’s make a list
of all the little movements in your symphony. As days sigh with
relief and sink into your harbour let’s speak of legacy,
of how a Black child living in a city built by slavers learns to see him-
-self reflected in the face of his elected mayor. How he slips on that knowledge
each morning with his school shoes and walks it into
his future. We mulch our present, use it to fertilise our tomorrows.
And despite the rutted tarmac, the withered bus routes, the loads
too heavy to lift sometimes; we’re still here. Whether blitzed or burnt or
battered by inflation, we determined pips shelter in your core and
wait for the weather to turn. Sometimes we step up, break new ground then
step away. Sometimes we lie fallow, bless
the quiet earth whispering promises as we unspool. We dug ourselves
from lockdown’s rubble, filled our hearts’ echoing vaults with
golden-hour chat with pixelated friends, families
origamied into screens. But chaos scatters unknown fruit,
some fires leave us standing amid shoots of
unexpected green. Planted in our gardens of solitude, the
chatgroups flourished, tendrils reaching through concrete
into silent flats, neighbours’ voices carried on their laden vines.
Your streets are still entwined, our conversations glow
like fireflies in our cupped hands. We know that
no harvest is certain. We know the year will call last orders soon;
that soon we’ll have to stretch, prepare for action, for another waltz around
the sun but don’t clear our plates just yet. Let’s taste this windfall moment, listen
to life ricochet from rented bedroom windows, scratch with sparrows in the eves
drip from broken gutters. Fill us with your music Bristol, give us space to come undone.
Then wind our clockwork up again, set us on your streets and watch us run.
* A golden shovel is a poetic form created by Terrance Hayes in 2010 in homage to the US poet Gwendolyn Brooks. The golden shovel poem takes an excerpt from a pre-existing poem/text and uses each word in that excerpt as the end word of each line in a new poem. This new poem usually reflects on or alludes to the themes of the original text used. I think of golden shovels as being a bit like a puzzle box with a bonus poem hidden inside, although their secrets are only discoverable via reading them, not by listening to them being read.
Here, I’ve used the words of the first eight lines of Keates’ ‘To Autumn’ as the end word in each couplet, as well as borrowing some of the pastoral imagery and romantic language of the original. I’ve played a little loose with the form as, strictly speaking, a donated word should end each line, not each couplet. I’ve also changed ‘the thatch-eves’ to ‘the eves’ (because I can only think of one thatched house in Bristol), stuck the ‘the’ in front of ‘eves’ instead of letting it have its own couplet, and changed ‘bosom-friend’ to ‘friend’ (because I couldn’t find a way of shoehorning ‘bosom’ into a poem without it feeling weird and uncomfortable for everyone). This makes it more of a gold-plated shovel rather than a pure golden shovel but given the cost-of-living crisis we’re currently suffering under, the budget version seems rather appropriate.
If you’re interested, the Poetry Foundation website has more info about the form and its origins, as well as Hayes’ original Golden Shovel and Brooks’ incredible poem ‘We Real Cool’ which started it all off.