The School Bag

Photos of a Salt Mine

P.K. Page

How innocent their lives look
how like a child’s
dream of caves and winter, both combined;
the steep descent to whiteness
and the stope
with its striated walls
their folds all leaning as if pointing to
the greater whiteness still,
that great white bank
with its decisive front,
that seam upon a slope,
salt’s lovely ice.

And wonderful underfoot the snow of salt
the fine
particles a broom could sweep,
one thinks
muckers might make angels in its drifts
as children do in snow,
lovers in sheets,
lie down and leave imprinted where they lay
a feathered creature holier than they.

And in the outworked stopes
with lamps and ropes
up miniature matterhorns
the miners climb
probe with their lights
the ancient folds of rock —
syncline and anticline —
and scoop from darkness an Aladdin’s cave:
rubies and opals glitter from its walls.

But hoses douse the brilliance of these jewels,
melt fire to brine.
Salt’s bitter water trickles thin and forms,
slow fathoms down,
a lake within a cave,
lacquered with jet —
white’s opposite.
There grey on black the boating miners float
to mend the stays and struts of that old stope
and deeply underground
their words resound,
are multiplied by echo, swell and grow
and make a climate of a miner’s voice.

So all the photographs like children’s wishes
are filled with caves or winter,
has acted as a filter,
selected only beauty from the mine.
Except in the last picture,
it is shot
from an acute high angle. In a pit
figures the size of pins are strangely lit
and might be dancing but you know they’re not.
Like Dante’s vision of the nether hell
men struggle with the bright cold fires of salt,
locked in the black inferno of the rock:
the filter her, not innocence but guilt.