Whenever I cross the river on a bridge with wooden piers, brine comes up from the ocean with thoughts from yesteryear… how many care-encumbered men, bearing a burden of sorrow have crossed the bridge since then.

(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

I hope you will read my poem below. It results from a twice erected opportunity that doubly collapsed with covid. While it is said that opportunity only knocks once, I can tell you it does not. It knocked twice for a program of health disaster management. It is important to grasp any opportunity, any which way. In the aftermath of any disaster opportunities to curb, the next appears. My fleeting opportunity came three years ago. It was to conduct an international bilateral program in disaster health management. Instead of revisiting Chernobyl and Fukushima, Bhopal, India or the Athens and Turkish earthquakes I wanted to do something different. I wanted to take a different look at collective danger, vulnerability to it and how it might be reduced.

Literature is a great instrument with which to examine vulnerability and resilience, pride and prejudice, suffering. Analogy, which requires some problem space to be transposed into another medium is another; planet Earth becomes the Titanic disappearing into a black hole threatened by human indifference and ignorance.

A number of disjointed thoughts came together surrounding the project’s planning after the summer of 2019. I wanted to use literature, especially poetry, and develop simple and powerfully expressed messages in a few words or lines on safety management and fantasy control. With my first round opportunity I refreshed myself with my activities in past programs, projects and the work of others, read into accidents in crowds, above ground and incidents below, in mines. For my introductory talk I had settled on the Tay train disaster in Scotland towards the end of the 19th century. I had decided to write a poem that would reflect some well-designed structure meeting unintended natural vulnerabilities and a result of corruption and greed; unperceived lowered safety factors at launch; vulnerability increased by wind and waves in winter, augmented by weight and frequent and fast moving freight and passengers. Other options included were to describe Spanish flu or a pandemic of dengue fever 100 years ago on Greek Islands and the self-sacrificing efforts of first-responders.

As I was reading related and terrible poems about the Tay disaster, literally terrible poems opportunely arrived a second time. With covid moving away, the program was on again. As I continued my reading, close to Christmas 2020 I was given a collection of short and fascinating stories by Mark Haddon (2016); all nine stories are dark and disturbing with a brooding atmosphere of personal or collective catastrophe.

The opening story was of a pier falling with crumbling wood and falling bodies. From it I extracted from it what I saw as an overview of a disaster for the opening lecture, which I have delivered over coffee to patient students. Haddon tells of life changing forever between a leisurely sigh and a frightening gasp, how the life of survivors can go back to normal and disaster become history. On The Pier can be joyous or simply shocking as time can fork and fracture. Time warped and the day was upended, life randomly compressed or expanded like a tensor, a spontaneous piece as reality unfolded. When we look back we may realize that if things had happened differently we could be leading a ghost life speeding away into darkness, in the words of Haddon. With The Pier, I thought of my poem as a sequence of snapshots; a photo-reportage strung together for participants in health disaster management, when one warm spring day a pier gave way as raging rivets went unheard.

The pier

Metal slowly twists and first a rivet tears
Sounds alarming go unheard
Danger signals lost in bustle, hustle of a noisy crowd
Two down now leaving just too few to hold the pier for long
Pillars shallow in the sand with lower tensile strength
Stressed non-buttressed legs and strained
Less metal in the structure than was planned
Few struts, one wrenched apart unnoticed in the winter storm
Wind and wave swayed in darkness of a winter’s rage
A central girder gave and went astray
Wave lashed wind whipped, with safety factors falling down
The pier erected by the town hall’s favored firm
Left to the structures’ frenzied fate
Less money in the pier not to increase a workers wage
Under-table bribes to keep the deal on course
Floppy plans scrutinized by just a knowing wink

With weather turning round to spring
A big expectant crowd now steps out in search of some relief
First day trip to be enjoyed away from kitchens’ dark
Still warm and unmade beds, kettle on the hob, left teacups in the sink
Bread crumbs, dripping fat and jam and embers covered under ash
A fast depart from gloomy table chores, books and heavy work
Crowds and laughing kids, jam smudged faces, rosy too
Three hundred people added to a warming beat
Two hundred on the sand below, deck chairs set

An old man in these parts well-known sets up a Punch and Judy show
At nine o’clock all’s well, revelings under way
Gaining confidence with each warm ray from sunshine gay
But too few the bolts to keep the pier upright, in place
High placed girders wrestle with a rhythmic tide below
Struggle stubbornly in tune not quite with the waters come and go
Pa-pa-pe-pa, structures shift, louder ra-ta-pa-pahs still not yet heard
Drowned in trippers belated, elated sudden good cheer
Some already numbed by early swigs of bottled beer
A bride, teased by her groom, and pleased with pleasant pulsation of the pulsating pier

Mom high up thrilled, leisurely sighs with her children close by
Some stroll with billowing clothes loose in the brisk breeze
Legs sway as remaining bolts jolt, grunt and fray
Signals that mingle in joyous seaside sounds
A girder drops a notch one more lost alarms
The pier seems to dance and to bounce
Mom still above gasps looks around without knowing why
Quietly bandsmen chat at the sea end of the pier
Trumpet, euphonium, trombone, and French horn all in hand
While to the side a big bass drum tautly stands

Static crackle, cackle pop, loudspeakers stutter and music plays
“Oh I do like to be beside the seaside, I do like to be beside the sea”
A sailor thinks he’s back at sea, cheerful kids do gleeful cartwheels
Balls arch overhead a patterned array, a juggler pleasing a small group
Thinking tomorrow he’ll have much more time
Time tomorrow to send some money back home and to mam
While his fine-tuned senses tells him something’s gone wrong
A couple hold each other tight, someone cries out in false fright
Laughter loud as kids and youth delight and as they shout
Ice cream cones fall, balls bounce roll faster
Some on the beach reclined glance upwards, some annoyed
With throbs of apprehension, others rise

Trembles picking up as rivets wrench, bolts twist then swivel
The pier humps like a camel buckles right as pillars sway
A bolt blows to jolt a longer structural length which sags down
On the sand below some stand up and asks themselves why
The sailor’s legs know though that he must leave the pier and quick
He starts to run with his seaman’s gait yells with his sailor’s mouth
The couple come closer, tender he kiss nothing yet amiss
A frantic mother cries out in her rush to her son where he plays
A short length of the walkway comes loose comes down
High flying balls above the migrants head lose grace
Free-falls head first with one dreadful thought thrashing his ears
He fled carnage back home and for what?

Two children plunge, chased after an adult and by racing balls
Without any support comes gravity’s accelerating call
Head and foot first, shattered struts wooden planks and a shoe
Hit sea, swim, swim, until they are pier free
Buoyant balls deep in pockets lets a migrant's luck hold out
Terror lets loose as more bolts burst snap break and shriek,
With those in the sea struggling to reach shore
Youngsters grab hands, clothes, hair of elders to drag them to land
Those on the beach now alarmed quiver on unstable feet
Laughter fades to fateful shrieks and panicked screams
Scrambling in chaos, an old man trampled under fast moving feet
Punch and Judy laying in sand, one last embrace
Two too shallow pillars flutter and lean shift in the sea
Shake, sag more, slide right then jolt as the last bolts pull apart
Planks creak and splinter with a gone mad noise

Telescopes well anchored down at the sea deep end take a dive
Jerk free unused as they waited for some curious eye
Waiting in vain to bring ships closer to the shore
Lopsided falling a short distance apart
Dancing a jig as the safety rail failed
While out on a sun buffed sea the ship is still there
The unmaintained pier with its chaotic crowd take one last farewell dive
Two too brittle legs break, wood, metal, people all crash down
Not one sentinel now stands at the deep sea end
No longer telescopes await some curious or romantic eye
And when the final count is told
Some survived, some pulled through, and many eyes were closed

A joyful sunny day at dawn by noon a joyless shattered pier
Which pulled apart so many lives and dreams died
That day with unplayed drums and horns when hearts ran out
The brass band silenced, watches that lost their time
When breaking bolts and rivets ripped apart unheard
And now the sirens coming getting near
Tomorrow’s hours and next week’s years
That will never come around again
A warm spring day, demise when heart beats failed
Lives ended short, dreams died upon a dancing pier
Sounds unheard with many drying tears
Some survived, some pulled through and still can weep
Many eyes were closed, will never cry again in joy or pain.