A while ago, I can’t now remember where, I saw a relief map of Britain as it might be a few centuries from now. Most of England was under water, though Wales and Scotland were largely intact. The queues at the borders, it occurred to me, will be lengthy.
Many people prefer to turn their minds away from the melting of icecaps. There are powerful people in America who deny the judgement of science that the planet is overheating, let alone the emerging view that it’s already too late to reverse the process. But one group seemed to sense, early and clearly, how watery our world will become – the poets. Alice Oswald, in Dart, celebrated the beneficent in running water. In Sean O’Brien’s The drowned book water, welling up and pouring down, is invasive and a bringer of destruction. Philip Gross, Cornish by birth, Welsh by residence, is another water-diviner. In his collection The water table, which won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2009, he circles, often it seems from high above, one particular stretch of water, the Severn estuary, and asks questions of the vast expanse of water below.
Spaced through the book like vertebrae are ten short poems belonging to a powerful sequence called ‘Betweenland’. Each takes an aspect of the mouth of the Severn – the Welsh name Môr Hafren seems better, since this water is much more like a sea than a river mouth – and holds a brief but penetrating conversation with itself.
Here’s the introductory poem, ‘Betweenland I’ (I’ll call it B1):
A body of water: water’s body
that seems to have a mind (and
change it: isn’t that what makes
a mind, its changing? Not much
prone to thinking – rather, thoughts
curl through it, salt or fresh, or hang
between states; sometimes gloss
the surface with their oil-illuminations.
Wind-worried to dullness, pulled two ways
(earth and moon like parents not quite
in accord), unquiet body, it can never
quite lay down its silt; always trying
to be something other, to be sky,
to lose itself in absolute reflection.
The poem has a seventeenth century, metaphysical flow: wordplay drives its rapid and exact twists of thought. ‘A body of water: water’s body’: if the Severn has the body, it may have a mind – but the proposition is qualified straight away. It’s not the river doing the thinking. Rather, thought is acting upon it, in the movements hidden below the surface, its water alternately fresh and salt, its surface alternately shiny and dull. Water is in constant flux, between physical states, and between body and mind: ‘gloss’ is gleam but also explanation; ‘reflection’ is mirror but also contemplation.
The poet’s drone descends in B2 to examine the estuary’s ‘mud, the megatonnage of it’, a phrase that combines mass (‘heavy haulage, to and fro / a weight you can see’) with raw power (an echo of the nuclear bomb?). Its movement is slowly circular:
… its deep whorls scarcely
moving, scarcely filling:
turned on a wheel, leather hard already.
The ceramic metaphor glides quickly into an astronomical one and then into an existential ‘question’:
spins off now like a slow world,
like a question
about nothing it can put a name to,
that leaves home in search of a face of its own.
where the word ‘expression’, at first seemingly verbal, resolves itself as facial.
B4, returns to the estuary’s face and considers its mouth. As in B1, the poem begins by literalising a metaphor:
A mouth, we say – as if it spoke the hills’
native language in the lowlands’ slow
The ‘native language’ is Welsh – the Severn rises on the slopes of Pumlumon in Ceredigion. ‘Slow translation’ suggests both the literal ‘bearing across’ of sediments from high to low passages of the river, and the ponderousness of the English language. The Severn collects its words from innumerable tributaries before its mouth ‘debouches’ (another literalisation) the hearsay and secrets and gossip it has collected, to be ‘mopped up’ by the sea, anthropomorphised as a cleaner or ‘twice daily’ (a phrase John Donne would have been proud of).
In B5 the poet tracks back to the watershed and the river’s origin, and its defining of a border (eventually a border between two countries) that knows ‘no imperial line ruled in the sand / of deserts’). At every point the river’s direction or almost conscious ‘tending’ can be followed. ‘Though / we don’t know what it is / that knows, it knows.’
From mouth we move, in B7, to ear, ‘the estuary’s battered pewter hearing-trumpet / amplifying distance’. A trackless mud-creek, ‘as private and intricate as the inner ear’, is unmapped and possibly unvisited by humans. B8 continues the aural theme. The multisonic sounds of the river, ‘the flow, / the under-hush of water, tide-drag, friction with itself’), can’t be heard individually by the poet’s deaf father, but no matter: all can be collapsed into ‘one brilliant thought: falling’; ‘such / all-sound that it’s silence, or as good as’.
B9, an archaeological poem, exposes a ‘river underneath the river’, clear at low tide, with all the features of a normal river (broad meanders, floodplain/ pastures), but in monochrome, like an early photo, ‘a memento of itself, or what / we had forgotten we’d forgotten’, a landscape before humans, before life-forms.
The final poem of the sequence, B10, abandons the swift mobility and bright ‘gloss’ of B1 for the stillness of night-time:
Just after sunset, and the tide
high, almost white, dull-
lambent like nothing the sky
holds, or could lend it. Each
shore, this and that shore,
black, a particular
blackness, pinned in place
by each house- or street-lamp.
Done with. As if land
was night, and us its night-thoughts
and the river was the draining down
of daylight, westwards and out
of the world, so how could you not
(your gaze at least) feel drawn
and want, half-want, to follow?
In this poem we leave behind the quick-fire word-play, the rapid transitions of image and idea, and the exploratory questioning. The tone and mood move on two centuries, to the Romantic poets. At the very end, the reader, not before this point an actor in the sequence, is asked a Keatesian question, about a voluntary approach to watery extinction (‘westwards and out’). There is no easy answer, even before the time when the rising waters give us fewer options.
Taken together the ‘Betweenland’ poems are a sustained exercise in ‘poetic research’, extracting multiple meanings from a seaway that normally flows unexamined and even unobserved. Their multisensory explorations, in plain but glittering language, uncover how many different worlds can be found in the great riversea, and yet how singular it is in its essence.