Jorie Graham

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.

Well Read


I’ve taken a brief hiatus from Invective to launch my new book. A new book is a strange thing: shiny and slightly alien to its author. In a post a few weeks ago I commented on the odd sensation of holding it in my hand for the first time. And now there are stacks of them all over the house (or at least there were – the stacks have diminished to two copies, I’m pleased to report), so this book has taken its place with all those other books that seem to occupy every corner and surface.

But this post is not about the materiality of the book, but what it is like to read from it, which I have now done on three occasions (most notably at the launch on 2nd June, sharing the floor with my fellow Salt poet Katy Evans-Bush, launching her excellent Egg Printing Explained: The launch was more of a party interrupted by a few poems to get the assembled crowd in the mood to read the book. But the readings I did in Aldeburgh, and in Chepstow at the wonderful Poetry on the Border series ( with Seren poet Paul Groves ( were very different kinds of events.  

To hear a poet doing an extended reading from a book is an opportunity to fall into his / her particular cadence and voice. I remember the first time I heard the American poet Jorie Graham reading at the University of London, and through her delivery, finally understanding her use of line endings as a way of exploring thought process and natural speech. Sometimes a poet’s voice gives me a certain way of pronouncing a word which is not the way I would pronounce it (especially in my North American accent) and therefore suggests different sound patterns and rhymes. Sometimes there is an unexpected emphasis on a word or phrase that never occurred to me when reading a poet’s work to myself, alone in my room. Tone and tempo are impossible to convey on the page, and often the comments poets make in between poems are as interesting and valid as the poems themselves. The poets who are best at reading their work always make me feel as if my understanding of their poems has been enhanced by their presence in the room, their body language, as if they are giving an additional gift, as well as their work.

So that’s my goal. Off to Bath on Thursday for yet another reading. It’s also nice to put faces to readers – it is good to know not only that the book is in the world, but who is holding a copy …

Word as image

From a distance, Alice Attie’s drawings (which I came across for the first time this weekend at the London Art Fair) resemble tornados, storm clouds, funnels – swirling gray patterns committed to paper in a spidery hand. You have to get up close, practically put your face against them, to see that her patterns are shaped through minute letters, meticulously hand-drawn. I think of medieval monks patiently transcribing texts into tiny missals. The image I’ve shown here is comprised from the whole of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, forming a continuous circle of longing, a full moon, a breast.

Do we call these extraordinarily delicate works ‘art’ or ‘literature’? Can we ‘read’ them, or are we meant to see them from the perspective of distance, so that words blur into image, become something more than recognisable letters? Can we ascertain meaning simply from the patterning of words? In answer to the latter question, yes, to some degree poetic form can make an impression before we even begin to read the poem. The reader knows a sonnet by its shape, a box to contain an elegy or a declaration of love or a meditation on devotion. The broken, indented lines of a Jorie Graham poem suggest a mind at work, the process of thought detailed on the page, with all its hesitations and diversions.

The importance of shape, of using the whole page, even the white space and its implied silence and stillness, is something both poets and artists have in common. It is this convergence that Attlie’s work explores so lyrically.

A piece which explores the links between poetry and sculpture is now on the South African web journal of poetry and photography Incwadi:

More images of Alice Attie’s work can be seen on the Foley Gallery website: