This poem is by Elisabeth Sennitt Clough (http://elisabethsennittclough.co.uk/), a poet and friend of mine who has published the award winning pamphlet Glass and her debut collection Sightings. She is currently working on a new book, At or Below Sea Level. Liz has kindly allowed me to post her poem, along with my notes on it, below.
Pages You Lose to the River
By Elisabeth Sennitt Clough
No horror but in folklore round here,
so the girl bathed in velvet silt beds,
swam slalom through river weeds
and harvested mussels and clay.
Algae shone fluorescent on her pale back.
The Ouse was hers to swim and glide along:
a river that spilled onto her clean page
as she watched it until the current shifted.
The breeze worked itself through the sedge,
the bur-reed, the bulrushes. Perhaps it told her
what the farmworker had found one day
on his docky-break. Maybe it was the curlew
who slow-dripped a stalactite of lore from its beak
into her ears. She swaddled their stories
in hessian, tucked their sharp corners in –
the one about her third great-grandmother,
who watched men bail oil from a whale in the dock,
only to climb inside its carcass to lie down,
baptising herself in fleshy hollows,
in the hope it would cure her rheumatism.
To me, this poem feels steeped in Alice Oswald’s Dart – the river Ouse here becomes a creative force that runs through the generations, a home to myths and stories which cannot be separated from the men and women who worked along its banks. But there is more than just the force of the river at work, there is the “breeze” (like Wordsworth’s “vital breeze” which signals the arrival of artistic inspiration) and the almost surreal structure in the final stanza, and at the mouth of the river – the hollowed out carcass of a whale, with its literary connotations, arrived from the monstrous depths like an entirely unexpected and overwhelming new idea – a whole new force – but also like a womb, with its comforting, maternal “fleshy hollows” and possibly its amniotic “oil” in which the speaker’s ancestor “baptises” herself. She is immersed in the whale the way the writer is as she bathes in the river, becoming part of its water and mud – part of the folklore – disappearing into the traditions and old-wives tales. But the “horror” in the first line, although negated and confined to folklore (why is this line italicised I wonder – is this a quote, or is it something spoken to or overheard by the speaker, indicating oral tradition perhaps?), remains throughout the poem; and there is a possible sense that the speaker is referring to a drowned girl, and that what “the farmworker had found” was a corpse. There is perhaps a hint of horror even as early as the second line when we read about the girl bathing in “velvet silt beds” which could be both comforting and menacing in as much as “silt” is so close to “slit” that there is a hint of a slit throat here, and a resultant death bed. Lost to the river. But is the Ouse a creative force linking women generations apart? Or is it a malign killer, perhaps a symbolic, communal forgetfulness, the inverse of a cultural memory, from which the speaker feels the need to protect the precious folk tales she has heard growing up, “swaddling” them in hessian as though they are babies (and, floating down the river with the girl, here we think of Moses being set afloat amongst the reeds by his mother to protect him from the king of Egypt – a biblical link to the self-baptism in the next stanza, where the female ancestor takes on the St. John role and purifies (regenerates?) herself, doing away with the need for the traditional and masculine “Baptist” figure). Or is it both: a creator/killer or capricious god(dess) who gives life to folklore as s/he supports life on her banks, and then destroys it with forgetfulness. As with the Oswaldian Dart, the Ouse in this poem yields no quick answers but each bend leads to another interesting question.