Atacama Vigil

chilean miners

It is perhaps fitting that the first poem I had published was almost by pure chance and also about Chile.

For some years I had been on the Board of a fantastic organisation called New Writing North which develops, supports and promotes new writing in the region. My presence on the Board had nothing to do with any creative writing skill but in my capacity as a local government bureaucrat with some responsibility for the arts!

Anyway, as a consequence I did make a point of reading the regular newsletter New Writing North produce and in one edition in 2013 there was a call for poems about human rights to be sent to the Human Rights Consortium, School of Advanced Study based at the University of London, for possible publication in an anthology of poetry about human rights.

With the deadline less than a week away I had no time to write anything new but had two poems which I thought fitted the criteria. One of those, was a poem started in 2010 and sort of completed in 2011 titled Atacama Vigil. I say ‘sort of’ because I had never been entirely sure that this poem was complete. There had been an additional four lines which were dropped so the version as presented had sat there ‘unfinished’ for sometime. I looked at the poem, I looked at the deadline and attached both poems to the e mail and promptly thought little more about it.

The poem is about the thirty three Chilean miners who spent two months trapped underground, from August to October 2010, before being miraculously rescued, one at a time, in a single man vessel aptly named the Phoenix. The poem goes like this.

Atacama Vigil

The world watched the hours stretch
While the Phoenix, fashioned as your saviour,
Plumbed the narrow shaft to inner space,
One man wide, one man at a time.
For a while, we thought you were lost.
But in the certain knowledge of discovery
You created a subterranean world,
Milk, fish and work,
Discipline designed to defy death.

Above ground; Camp Hope.
Everything from tents to t-shirts,
Wives to girlfriends,
Schools, showers and Sky News.
Previously desk bound reporters
Revealed their Spanish speaking skills,
The unknown wives of unknown men
Filled our screens and spilled their dreams,
Copiapo was on the map.

Your chances, slimmer than Chile itself
Frayed at first then strengthened
As the rescue mission tied the threads
Of science and solidarity to your resolve.
Slowly, the earth returned you,
Sunlight shocked and embraced,
Sounds unfettered, shook and exploded,
Survival was sucked in with every breath,
Celebrations erupted on Chile’s streets.

Only the mining bosses kept their heads low;
What price the price of copper now?
What price the rush to squeeze dry desert
Just a little harder, dig a little further?
What price the lives of thirty three?

Steve Bishop

I was pleasantly surprised when I received an email letting me know that Atacama Vigil had been selected for publication. Of the 600 poems entered, 150 had been selected and mine was one of them!

The anthology titled, In Protest: 150 Poems about Human Rights, was launched at the Bloomsbury Festival in London on 20th October 2013.  The following link will take you to the site to buy the full book

I could not make the launch.  Did I care? It would have been nice to go but my first published poem was in an anthology sitting alongside work by Carol Ann Duffy and Ruth Padel amongst others; I would cope!



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