Thursday, 7 October 2010

A typology of river poems

For National Poetry Day, here's one I penned in late 1999. It won a prize in the 2008 Sefton writing competition.


Downstream, or riverside: Oxus forgetting
the bright speed it had, the edges not now close
or fresh, but flat as Sohrab’s sand, embankments,
workaday wharves. The high adventure’s gone,
or aching with the sense of what has gone.

Upstream: the source, but there’s not much to see.
The backward quest’s unlearning comes to this:
near fields, and baffled which of two or three
almost-remembered streams the true source is.

Across the river: trusting that he went
into it with Where is thy sting? and going
deeper, said, Grave, where is thy victory?
and thus passed over, and the trumpets sounded
for him the other side, we can describe it so.
But the crowd flowing over London Bridge –
“I had not thought death had undone so many”?
To say nothing of being very sorry to say
that ninety lives have been taken away
on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
which will be remembered for a very long time.

The litany of river names: there’s power
in lists. The list of two that has for third
and fourth Er… and That’s it stands like a tower
aborted, but the list of three’s a cord
not lightly broken, and the list of four
drives the point home and hammers it some more,
and if you list upwards of five or six –
Ursula Fanthorpe’s lines that end in Styx –
you’ve got it made, and if for want of heaven
you list the cloudburst-sobbing streams of Devon,
the Tamar under fifty miles of drumming,
the salmon lit, again lit, with rain coming,
no one, it’s true, is guaranteed to weep,
but I saw one man’s eyes begin to steep.