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Ian Duhig: a poem


Labouring in Hepworth's cloth warehouse

fifty years ago, I met one of David's killers:

ex-cop ex-con security man, drunken bully

we scorned for his soft time then softer job.

"The Cloth" local cops called their uniform

but also meaning the vocation. Their force

was wound up that same year, "The Cloth"

rendered down as shoddy from such shame.

David's story threaded through my life since,

drew me into homelessness work, winding

through my poems: often with two left feet,

but there are worse things than willed verse.

I read some at the installation of his plaque

on Leeds Bridge just above the spot where

those cops forced him in the Aire to drown.

Its new bridge is also named for Oluwale,

a fit symbol of this city, connecting itself

to itself like a poem; who we want to be

with who we were; bad to good, right to

wrong, from left to right then back again

like the shuttles that wove Leeds' wealth,

or, for me, light veering across this page,

turning white to black, silences to words.

The plaque was torn down within hours,

its replacement as fast but most in this city

united for him, posted copies of the plaque

all over Leeds: high over its busiest roads,

in Kirkgate Market, outside the Playhouse.

Sticky replicas were made, given away free,

posted off to our more distant well-wishers.

His story raged through social media; local

and national newspapers ran it – BBC, ITV.

"St David" an old BNP blog sneered I recall;

well maybe this was St David's first miracle:

who'd vilify him and us became the vilified,

who'd erase him now his greatest publicists,

shade they sought to throw grew sweetness,

as Yorkshire rhubarb forced from darkness,

as David's story sought the light, the bridge

between us this air we will walk on, always.

Ian Duhig became a full-time writer after working with homeless people for fifteen years, as well as on arts collaborations and on social projects, including with Leeds Irish Health and Homes, Refugee Action Bradford and the David Oluwale Memorial Association. Duhig has won the Forward Best Poem Prize once, the National Poetry Competition twice and his New and Selected Poems from Picador was awarded the 2022 Hawthornden Prize for Literature. His next book of poems, An Arbitrary Lightbulb, will be published by Picador next year.

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