Grinding the wind

and after chapel 
            where every man bellows Amen with such 
force it blows the hair from the temples

               it’s back to the tread-wheel 
the great barrel turning, each man in his dumb stall 

grasps the hand rail, lifts his feet and lifts

   slow as horses in a ploughed field 
but never gaining purchase

and it’s here 
              in the silent reek of sweat and dust 
I hear a lark empty his heart. I have seen

         men laugh with their feet; rows 
of shuffling shoes at some misfortune—

        a turnkey spilling hot coffee 
a warden falling asleep in his chair—

but for a moment the tread-wheel spins 
the great blades of the fan 
                              with purpose

   our industry turns cloud 
                              our industry mills the sky

Frankie McMillan is a poet and short-story writer who lives in Christchurch. She is the author of The Bag Lady’s Picnic and other stories and two poetry collections, Dressing for the Cannibals and There are no horses in heaven. In 2009 she won first prize in the New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition. In both 2013 and 2015 she was the winner of the New Zealand Flash Fiction Award. Frankie McMillan was awarded the Creative New Zealand Todd New Writers’ Bursary in 2005 and held the Ursula Bethell residency at the University of Canterbury in 2014.

Her forthcoming book, My Mother and the Hungarians and other small fictions (Canterbury University Press) will be published in August 2016. She currently teaches at the Hagley Writers’ Institute.

McMillan comments: ‘This poem was triggered by overhearing a snatch of conversation: ‘All I do is work … I’m on an effing treadmill.’ I began to be curious about the different uses of a treadmill and my reading led me to the historic Cold Bath Fields prison. Unlike those in other prisons, where the treadmill was often used to power pumps and mills, the Cold Bath Fields prisoners were solely on the tread-wheel to ‘grind the wind’. Reading about this kept me awake at night as I tried to imagine how the prisoners coped performing such an arduous and useless task for hours on end.’

Poem source details >


New Zealand Book Council writer file
There are no horses in heaven at Canterbury University Press
Hagley Writers’ Institute