The Long Ships, The Muskets And The Burning Domes: Ten Poems About Rivers
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
Walking on a canal bank a geologist friend of mine once described what he saw, not in terms of its shimmering surface or its arrow straightness. What he said was: ‘feel the weight of the water’. His preoccupation was displacement, volume, and from those considerations, he said, emerged a feeling of claustrophobia, of oppressive heaviness.
Which lays no less claim to a poetical way of thinking than any in this highly engaging anthology of poems, judiciously selected by Ian Duhig. The phenomenology, the clearing of the decks of literalism, which underpins Julian Turner’s wonderfully condensed sonnet, ‘Appletreewick’, is both refreshing, and characteristic of a view which is never less than panoptic. From where Turner is standing, or hanging on to a foothold in the context of a Hughesian sense of brute elemental forces destabilising cognition, we can imagine a landscape once more overwhelmed by the burgeoning waters of what was once the Wharfe:
‘ while the rafts
of farms, roped to their mooring stones
by walls, ride on a tide of turf.’
Turner controls tectonic instability in a formal ‘frame of art’; his tight poem makes allowance for the reader to think beyond the immediate, to envision immense geologies in universal darkness. And it is strangely consolatory.
We could cast aside the provenance of the individual contributors here – poetic luminaries, all - and read the poems blind, as though on pages of anonymity, because mutability of theme is the key, and each poem opens on landscapes of memory, of history, which transcend the banks of the river’s own meaning. But with exceptions, Turner amongst them, rivers are viewed at a cultural distance, enabling, some might argue, a clarified view of quotidian detail that new eyes bring to observation.
For Kayo Chingonyi, a long view is perceived through a ‘turbid mist lifted from the Tyne’. The vision of ‘Baltic Mill’ over the water enables the foregrounding of as many histories as can be contained in the darkness below. The sounds of a distant time of shipbuilding, of brute labour and of colonial pastiche – ‘blackface / minstrels from Gateshead mines and / iron works’ – congeal into a near-sublime moment of reconciliation, where the addressee is lost amongst the silt wherein all of our, profoundly faulty, pasts are joined:
' It is that we met
Iike this river, drawn from two sources,
offered up our flaws, our sedimental selves.'
Jane Draycott, whose own riverine preoccupations might have distinguished this fine pamphlet still further, has said of Chingonyi that ‘his imagery is a series of small doors opening onto a whole house’. And the same epithet could be used of Irish poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, whose strange and beautiful journey in ‘Crossing the Loire’ submerges the reader in a landscape of magically-observed detail, infused by suggestions of the mystical yet suddenly anchored in the present, as though water’s prism was a vessel for mythical speculation as much as a conduit for transcendent journeying. The poet’s power to dissolve the siren sound of legend in that present is astonishingly well-served by a languorous, almost conversational, metrical form:
‘She came rising up out of the water, her eyes were like sandbanks
The wrinkles in her forehead were like the flaws in the mist
(Maybe a long narrow boat with a man lying down
And a rod and line like a frond of hair dipping in the stream)
She was humming the song about the estuary, and the delights
Of the salt ocean, the lighthouse like a summons;’
Zaffar Kunial’s ‘from Empty Words’, written especially for this anthology, performs a ministry of commemoration. Born in Birmingham to an Indian father and English mother, Kunial is drawing the disparate threads of heritage close in an effort to render several rivers of origin tributarial to his own sense of identity. His terse, apothegmatic observations – he finds simple consolation in simulacra of sound – seeks the flow of consanguinity in movingly speculative phrasing:
‘Full-rhyme with Jhelum
the river nearest his home –
my father’s ‘realm’.’
Beth McDonough’s inventory of the River Tay’s outliers and tributaries is as self-consciously celebratory as any of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ joyous excursions. An engaging anthropomorphism – McDonough’s feeder waters are swallowed up when their recalcitrant chuckling naughtiness meets the T-junction of the Tay – animates a lively circumlocutory narrative whose rivers bear the exhilarating suggestion of wild swimmers abandoned to their travelling waters.
The ‘striving’ of rivers is in any case, a serviceable metaphor for a human sense of displacement. The lighthouse’s summons in ‘Crossing the Loire’ elsewhere draws the destitute and expectant traveller to new golden-pathed ‘realms’ whose promise turns out to be illusory. David Oluwale, Nigerian by birth and no doubt hopeful by disposition, fetched up in the Leeds of the Sixties, to be met with institutionalised racism of the most crushing sort. Homelessness, mental illness and relentless police hounding shadowed a path to the river in which Oluwale drowned in 1969. The cold and murky water of the Aire cannot yield the consolation, even, of abandonment in Ian Duhig’s fine poem, which does its utmost, instead, to pay homage to a forgotten voice, a life forgotten, save for tributes like his, five decades on. Fitting, in the context of Oluwale’s death, that Duhig should harness the mysticism of Nigerian waters to give balm to his journeying spirit, in words that are desperately moving and remain long in the memory.
‘ my six cowries set down here
draw David’s Christian ghost into Oshun’s arms,
water goddess with a name of water, that he too
might step into the true meaning of his own name
borne back to Africa, where the river of us all rose.’ (‘An Aroko for David Oluwale’)
If Chuilleanáin’s ‘Crossing the Loire’ is another way of seeking transcendence, Pascale Petit finds a vigorous and colourful mysticism in her embracing of the Amazon in ‘The Jaguar’. Taken from her award-winning recent volume, Mama Amazonica, the poem demands of the reader the kind of mental re-configuration which must have animated Petit’s actual sojourn in the Amazon rainforest. In a luminous conflation of the human, the mythical and the animal, Petit measures the limits of psychological damage and ecological abuse against the backdrop of a luxuriant but dangerously fragile river hinterland. The shape-shifters, water gods, and humans in animal form are at once vibrant and terrifying:
‘The forest swayed with tattoos
of dark and light, no and yes.
And everywhere there were eyes,
rainclouds of eyes, terror-struck,
as if the first human opened hers
and saw mist rising
from her mother’s flanks.’
Where the sediment of Kaya Chingonyi’s Tyne is a repository for the recapitulation of a maelstrom of cultural heritages, Philip Gross’ totemic Severn is an occlusion of water and sky and horizon, a gently lilting song to a river that is both movement and inertia, light and dark, wherein human impulses are borne and reflected, as though in a mirror:
‘the tide-rip the sound of dry fluttering wings
with waves that did not break or fall.
We were two of the world’s small particular things.
We were old, we were young, we were no age at all’. (‘Severn Song’)
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In Eavan Boland’s wise poem ‘The Scar’, we enjoin a river whose city reflection is a metaphor also for the unfolding and burgeoning of its daily existence and its turbulent history. If the Liffey, Dublin’s river of life, cannot cauterise the scarrings of the past – the personal and the public, ‘the long ships, the muskets and the burning domes’ – its act of concealment, effacement, its relentless movement, enable the illusion of a sense of continuity, as though old wounds could be healed in a visionary moment.
No process of self-delusion could mitigate the effluvial consequences of high winds and a Spring tide in Kathleen Jamie’s visceral ‘Springs’. On one level, a simple description of a landscape overwhelmed by water and the muck it yields up, Jamie’s poem demands no complication beyond the persuasive authority of uncannily apt metaphors, and the flotsam of acute observation:
‘Full March moon and gale-force easters, the pair of them
sucking and shoving the river
back into its closet in the hills, or trying to. Naturally
the dykes failed, the town’s last fishing boat
raved at the pier-head, then went down; diesel-
corrupted water cascaded into front-yards, coal-holes, garages’
Sometimes, as the philosopher found pulling the stone from his shoe, it is hard to get beyond the immediacy of a moment’s pain.
Ten Poems about Rivers – Selected and Introduced by Ian Duhig is published by Candlestick Press
The Long Ships, The Muskets And The Burning Domes: Ten Poems About Rivers, 14th September 2018, 10:30 AM