This is the death trade: early mornings, early graves.
Your fingers are blood-starved,
palms and soles of your feet white-hard.
Sometimes you think you’ve turned to ice:
if you fell you’d shatter, they’d melt you.
Looking down, the ice in the wells is a tiled floor,
when you’re on it it’s the devil’s tongue –
you skid, your boots slip out.
A dozen times a day you think you’re going over:
the ice has you in its silk teeth.
This risk, the burden of the blocks, puts the sweat on.
Stacked, they are steps, landings, a staircase to the porthole sky.
They glisten, sweat their own, look sticky –
but this is not crystal honey: wicked cold,
these weeping blocks might betray you to the winch,
and the ladder would not miss you.
I wrote this poem back in 2013 as part of a residency I undertook at the London Canal Museum for Museums at Night, writing poems about the historic London ice trade. You can read more about the project on my associated ice poetry blog.