Tuskers mining the hoard
tunnel blindly through cold
Siberian soil, mud-men
moiling for a strange old gold.
In the sap-sweet scrubland,
at the edge of the forest
where the witch resides, dogs
on the scent of unseen quarry
whine and claw at crumbling dirt,
summoned to the riverbank
by the smell of old meat thawing.
At dawn pump-generators sputter,
cough then roar—scattering birdsong,
shattering the mute sleep of spruce.
Men in helmets and hip-boots
point the petrol-sheened river
through hoses heavy as elephant trunks,
drilling a determined plume
of sluice into the secret-keeping soil,
interrogating stones and the tense,
clasped roots of trees.
They can feel it, Luck,
tingling in their own numbed
extremities. The wet soil reeks
of minerals and decay like a fresh dug
garden or grave. Iron, old blood.
Catherine Greenwood’s permafrost unburial poetry is from a work-in-progress called Siberian Spring.
Questions and Answers
1. What inspired you to write this poem?
I’ve been writing poems about ice-age animals found in melting Siberian permafrost, and during my research stumbled across a story about mammoth tusk hunters, whose search for ice-ivory or ‘white gold’ can be dangerous and environmentally detrimental.
2. What did you find particularly challenging in writing this poem?
As the first poem in a sequence titled Tuskers, ‘Tusk Hunters’ had to stand alone while also setting the scene for a longer narrative — I found it tricky to provide sufficient context without disrupting pace or mood, and to end on a note that felt complete yet foreshadows what is to follow.
3. What poetic techniques did you use in this poem? How much attention do you pay to form and metre?
The opening lines include words like ‘moiling’ borrowed from Robert Service’s supernatural ballad set in the Yukon’s Gold Rush era – I hope this allusion about another kind of mining adds historical resonance, and that some of Service’s gothic sheen rubs off on my diction. For readers not familiar with Service’s work, I flagged the sequence with an epigraph from ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee.’ Rather than using a formal structure with end-rhyme, I rely on effects such as internal rhyme and alliteration to give the poem its auditory texture; for instance, the onomatopoeia of the sibilant phrase ‘shattering the mute sleep of spruce’ soundscapes the human intrusion in a quiet forest.