Alice Oswald

The language of water

When your writing is going well, does it feel as if words are ‘pouring’ from you? When you’re listening to someone speaking and not really grasping the meaning, do you have the sensation of words ‘washing’ over you? Why a ‘torrent of abuse’ or a ‘sea of troubles’? These watery metaphors represent a pace at which words are measured, the ebb and flow of language; water can describe our way of speaking, of thinking.

There is a Jorie Graham poem called The Surface which is about the experience of trying to describe the fast-flowing movement of a river, but it is also about ‘the river of my attention’, the way the mind moves, ‘bending, / reassembling—over the quick leaving-offs and windy / obstacles’. The poem is broken, fragmented, like the motion of water. It is not possible to grasp it, to hold it, to chart it.

So how do we articulate our understanding of water? As Robert MacFarlane suggested in his opening talk at the recent Place: Taking the Waters weekend at Snape Maltings, perhaps we need to begin by choosing our prepositions carefully. A river is not simply a location nor a feature of a landscape, but a moving, living organism. Speaking of the late Roger Deakin, MacFarlane suggested that rather than being ‘on’ the water or ‘by’ the water, Deakin’s desire was to be ‘in’ it. His book, Waterlog, acted as a set text for the weekend’s conversations – a manifesto for the right to swim. Deakin argues that swimming should be as natural as walking, but we have lost the knack of being fully immersed.

Before he starts the epic swim around Britain that is chronicled in the book, Deakin says, ‘I started to dream ever more exclusively of water. Swimming and dreaming were becoming indistinguish-able. I grew convinced that following water, flowing with it, would be a way of getting under the skin of things, of learning something new… In water, all possibilities seemed infinitely extended.’

As I read these words, a poem kept nagging at the back of my mind. It was only after finishing the book, attending the Place weekend that the lines of the poem became clear, like landmarks on the horizon. The lines describe that experience of immersion, not into a lake or a river, but into the depth of the ocean:

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

The poem is Diving into the Wreck by Adrianne Rich, a poem which is about the experience of total immersion, into the deep sea, into words, into mythology, an ancient place (which is both the strange subterranean world of mermaids and also the world of words, stories set down centuries before the poet discovered them). It is a poem about immersing yourself in the poem, in words.

Back to Deakin, who could be describing Rich’s poem when he says:

So swimming is a right of passage, a crossing of boundaries: the line of the shore, the bank of the river, the edge of the pool, the surface itself. When you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens. Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world, in which survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim.

Many talks impressed me over the Place weekend, but the artist Simon Read and his maps of the River Deben came closest to bringing water and words together, in Deakin’s spirit of full immersion. Read lives ‘on’ the river Deben, in a Dutch barge he sailed over himself from Holland. But ‘on’ doesn’t feel like the right preposition to describe how his river life has saturated his work. Since the 80s, he has been trying to capture ‘how fluid systems work’ (both rivers and drawing, which he says has its own fluid dynamic), making maps of the river which are beautiful swirling watercolours but also practical, navigable charts, and chronicling in words along the river’s course the alterations to the landscape through coastal erosion, flooding, human intervention. So his maps become palimpsests for the history of the river with many different interventions (the way Alice Oswald’s poem Dart introduced a multitude of voices and experiences of that river).

No surprise to find that his last exhibition was entitled Immersion: Drawing with Purpose.

The photo is from Roni Horn’s series of the Thames.

Nature cure

Nearly two weeks out of London, and the countryside is beginning to have an effect on me.  I move more slowly, I notice birdsong and wildflowers more acutely, perhaps because there are fewer distractions imposed by other humans. It is restorative. But I could never give up London entirely. It is too quiet here, and once you have lived in a city for a long time you require a certain amount of noise and activity.  I will never be a country person, or for that matter, a pastoral poet. In a previous post, I came to the conclusion that I am an urban poet, perhaps by default, as I am uncomfortable with the idea of engaging with nature al la Alice Oswald or Ted Hughes. It is not who I am, not what I know. It seems easier to speak of the built environment, things created by humans for humans. The natural world is largely alien to me. Harriet Tarlo, the editor of the recent The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Nature Poetry has mentioned ‘the complexity of the relationship between writer, land and language.’ And Richard Mabey poses the question: ‘Isn’t a life of words the very antithesis of a life of nature?’

In Suffolk, the desire to describe every aspect of the landscape is overwhelming, because everything is visible at once. You can see a field in front of you, and the field beyond, and the field beyond that, stretching to the horizon. The sky is enormous and dramatic at all times, in all weathers. The curlew’s mournful cry, which I had never heard before I started coming here, is the sound I most equate with this part of the world.

So is there hope for me as a born-again pastoral poet? Possibly. Little sprigs of flowers and migrating birds are creeping into my poems. They will never completely replace the landscape of concrete and asphalt, but they mean something, they have a purpose. I am not entirely sure what it is yet, what metaphors they carry, apart from the obvious ones of beauty and tranquillity. I don’t really do “beauty” in my poems, not in the conventional sense, so I am waiting to see if new themes emerge from breathing in all this pure country air.

In the meantime, little pink frills of thrift and white spikes of saxifrage have appeared in the garden. At the very least, it must be Spring.

The image is a painting of Butley Creek by Kate Giles

Natural selection

In my garden in Stockwell I often see a pair of jays, not to mention our resident blackbird (with very distinctive white markings on his wings), blackcaps, robins, blue tits and an occasional wren. I’ve seen a heron fly over the house once, and a sparrow hawk twice. And last winter there was a spectacular invasion of redwings, perfectly at home in our uncommon snow. Beyond my garden is a low-rise estate, and beyond that, the Stockwell Road, which leads to Brixton. Not the most bucolic place, with its constant sirens and chicken take-away debris. But the birds don’t seem to mind, because they are birds, and as long as they can find enough to eat, they will stick around. As a city-dweller for the whole of my adult life, I still notice their presence, they still make an impact, and I am glad for their small music as I sit at my desk. City-dwellers are always in search of little patches of nature, parks and playgrounds, churchyards and canal towpaths, which make our concrete and tarmac existence more bearable. The whole rus in urbe thing.

I have to say that I never felt much of a longing for nature. The city has always been enough for me; as O’Hara says in ‘Meditations in an Emergency’, “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” Cities are easily navigable, and city-dwellers understand the politics of street and transport systems. We have a capacity for ugliness, for the burnt-out and uninhabitable. I like nothing better than a jaunt to some far-flung, forgotten corner of London with my friend Vici MacDonald (aka ‘Art Anorak’, a great connoisseur of urban ruin.

So as I skim pleasantly through anthologies of pastoral poems, in anticipation of two upcoming writing workshops looking at aspects of poetry and landscape, I wonder what has happened to me to make me even want to enjoy the blade of grass, let alone write about it (and encourage others to write about it). I have no ‘natural credentials’. I am not a gardener by trade, like Alice Oswald or Sarah Maguire. I do not know the names of plants and trees (although I am getting better with birds). I have the language to describe the urban experience, but I am ill-equipped to say much about flowers and fields. It doesn’t stop me from trying, sometimes in what feels to be a string of clichéd phrases. The built environment seems easier to sum up somehow, because I am part of it; the natural world operates in mystery.

However, I am beginning to realise that part of my problem is compartmentalisation. It is wrong of me to create a division between the urban and the rural. After all, aren’t the birds in my Stockwell garden part of the natural world? Richard Mabey, whose brilliant book The Unofficial Countryside has just been reprinted, says:

Our attitude towards nature is a strangely contradictory blend of romanticism and gloom. We imagine it to ‘belong’ in those watercolour landscapes where most of us would also like to live. If we are looking for wildlife we turn automatically towards the official countryside, towards the great set-pieces of forest and moor. If the truth is told, the needs of the natural world are more prosaic than this. A crack in the pavement is all a plant needs to put down roots.

Mabey’s project is to get us to embrace the lichens and weeds growing amidst the ruined buildings and between the railroad tracks, and therefore to see that we are not separate from nature. And that may make the (so-called urban) poet’s task less difficult when faced with that blade of grass.