Talk given at ‘A River runs through it’ - Spring 2018 conference convened by Waveney and Blyth Arts.
Thinking about rivers this week, the first thing I thought about them was: they’re a conversation the planet is having with itself.
Then I had some random memories of rivers – and I wrote them down.
I was in Damascus in 2001, and their river, the Barada, was in trouble. It crept, near-parched, sluggish and blackly stinking, dwarfed by its wide old banks, causing such consternation; it was an ailing family member, a beloved relative in trouble and withdrawing. Locals stood in knots, looking down at it, murmuring.
In Benares, the Ganges carries the debris of the dead. I swam in it, to my surprise, and it felt extraordinary. There, the river is a broad and complex conversation indeed, with cows chewing plastic bags at its edges, fires at its banks for those who can afford cremation – other bodies just get lowered in to the sacred water, which is ashy-grey and opaque.
Then I thought of driving through the base of the Avon Gorge in Bristol, alongside the muddy, clay-banked river which swelled and shrank with the tide, and under the suspension bridge, waving distant above us, a sort of necklace spanning the chasm.
Swimming at Hoxne in Suffolk, in the Waveney: unchanged in the 40 years I’ve been going there – apart from the little iron ladder at the bank which someone stuck in once, in the 1970’s. The ladder’s now freestanding in the water, as the banks have spread beyond it. But there’s the same feel of its warm, round rungs under my feet: the launching pad into the river, the reassuring solidity when you come back to it and it helps you out of the water. The awful feeling when I read, this year, that it has one of the highest levels of nicotinoids in the UK -along with the Wensum, another of my local rivers. Again – an old relation that we are not taking care of.
On my mind a lot is the new river, Rio Nuevo, that appeared overnight in Argentina, seemingly a result of deforestation for soya bean-farming, and now as much as 60 metres wide, There is something as disturbing about this as a river that dries up: a river appearing by mistake, not by nature’s design. It’s not a good sign, and this matters. Rivers matter to us, don’t they? That’s why we’re here today.
These were the first things that came to mind thinking about rivers this week – the images that surfaced from the flow. A different week would yield a different confluence. Most of those memories have made it into my poetry or non-fiction.
What else did I think? Bear with me, as it’s a bit of a stream of consciousness from now on. All these watery phrases we have to describe thought!
What are some of the things that rivers are? Setting aside their literal life-sustaining properties, and operating from the increasingly luxurious position of someone with enough water to drink and living on high groun:.
They are short-cuts, metaphors, thought-conductors and generators.
They run through my whereabouts, through my world, through me.
They journey so I don’t have to.
They’re neighbouring organisms.
They let me in – an accessible presence, always there (all being well) and not really changing – apart from in their actual composition: the drops of water which make them, which are all passing through. I find this a miracle; the rivers’ own creation myth.
- Finding the Waveney’s source, which turned out to be somewhere I’d driven past countless times, near where I grew up; knowing that this trickle which surfaces in the bog gives the river its river – this too felt like a miracle.
How does this inform my art?
(When I was younger it wasn’t conscious –it’s later in adulthood that I am aware of their) – companionship.
- Guidance - Calming, clearing presence
- Music - something too deep for words –
- although saying this, I do come back and back to writing about them. So, is it is too deep, and not too deep.
Swimming is a big part of all this (NOT wild swimming – just swimming. Wild swimming is just swimming, but branded, and I’m a bit allergic to the term) - hugely intensifying my relationship with the river; central to my mental wellbeing now.
It provides me with - a dreaming-place
- A shortcut in to the earth -its veins –river as almost a
go-between, an intermediary. An entrance into the milk of the planet.
It’s spooky, actually: I need to mention the spookiness. There’s a spookiness in there, whether out of depth or touching its weedy, muddy flanks and roots under the water; there is such mystery and, I want to say, death down there.
The composting, the rot, the darkness, the unseen.
Sometimes swimming along I yelp! And have to talk myself down – no hand will reach up and grab me. It’s an unnameable sensation.
Ears under the water, you can hear its pop and boom and echo, and this is spooky too. Eavesdropping. Intruding, a little.
Head fully under – not to be taken lightly.
The spookiness of deep water goes, I guess, with the emotional edge that water brings out.
So. How DOES this inform my art?
It lends itself to speech; to new words bubbling up; to thoughts of journey/movement/life. The rhythm of sunlight on water - the dance.
Reflection, solitude, being. Stillness. Flow. An invitation. An opening. Endless new combinations of water and of words.
It’s like scrying, to stare in. You can’t stare into sea in quite that way (much as I flipping love the sea). A river, in my neck of the woods at least, is more thought-sized.
And it talks, somehow, of its journey. It talks to itself, and lets me talk to it. And to hear back, a little, sometimes if I’m lucky.
Like I said: an everyday miracle.
When well, it is a celebration of itself.
When not, I say again, it is a wound we feel which is on the spectrum of it being our own blood, or kin. The thought of infection, of contamination, is desperate. Isn’t it?
This feeling drives my writing – the environmental, deep ecology aspect; the increasing presence of climate change, and the need to bear witness if we can.
Our rivers, brimming with possibilities: unique in every second, flowing with new droplets and combinations of water constantly. Our lifeblood. Beloved creatures. We need them to be well.
I learned a new word this week, reading an article about climate change in Alaska. Solastalgia: psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change – global or local. New words, new rivers. Now I know why I was thinking about the reassuring comfort of that unchanging ladder in the river at Hoxne.
Alice Oswald, a genius, who dared take on the river’s voice in her book-length poem ‘Dart’, wrote ‘Dunt -a poem for a dried-up river’, which won the Forward Prize for best single poem. It’s about both a river and a Roman figurine of a water nymph, which has been taken out of its surroundings. It conjures:
little hobbling tripping of a nearly dried-up river
not really moving through the fields,
having had the gleam taken out of it
to the point where it resembles twilight.
little grumbling shivering last-ditch attempt at a river
more nettles than water try again
very speechless very broken old woman
her left arm missing and both legs from the knee down
she tries to summon a river out of limestone
To me this also evokes writer’s block. So maybe that’s it. There’s a relationship there. The flow of the river helps the flow of me: as a writer, as a human, as a woman, as a creature. What can I give back? Words of appreciation, maybe…and of witness.
So, I have tried to think about the influence of rivers on my writing, and instead I’ve thought about the influence of rivers on me. But the fact is that I have recently finished my second collection of poetry, and most of its contents feature either rivers or the sea, or water in some form (even a bath.) . So – here are some poems about rivers, from Water Person Kit.
§ Water Person Kit
§ The sky looks at the water
§ River, post-spate
§ May day morning
§ Ganges at Benares
§ Autumn Equinox