Tag Archives Pliny the Elder


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Fifty years ago the garden of what is now

our house was five times its present size –

a garden that had been a field, and a heath.

A builder turned an orchard, borders

and most of a lawn into three modern

terraced houses and eight lock-up garages.

Part of what remained of the lawn was a dump.


Occasionally odd things still turn up –

like bits clinker, rusted iron, and, today,

a small piece of coal, of anthracite,

its planes and angles glinting like lightning

in the blackest of skies as I hold it up

to show my ten year old granddaughter.

‘What’s this, do you think?’ ‘Obsidian?’ she says.

‘It’s coal,’ I say. She looks at the geometry

of its blackness with the wonder I would feel

if I were to see obsidian. Seeing

my face she helps me with my homework.

‘It’s black volcanic glass. And in Minecraft

the Nether Portal is made from it.’


Plato maintained that the structure of the world

was cuboid. According to the elder Pliny,

Obsidius, an explorer, discovered

the sable glass in Ethiopia,

and was impressed by its sharp rectangles.

Stone age peoples made it into arrow heads,

who maybe believed in that portal,

through which Persephone and Orpheus

separately, reluctantly, descended – each returning,

one with glory, one with remorse. And I think

of the others, unnumbered, getting the coal

this child of the future has marvelled at,

coal that has set fire and water at odds

to envelop the world, rendering it

all desert or ocean.





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