Invective Against Swans
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.