Home » Issues & Poems » Issue Six » River Sounding

River Sounding

Mimi Khalvati

Romesh Gunesekera, who was poet in residence at the time, commissioned Jamie McKendrick, Pauline Melville and myself to write a poem or short story in response to Bill Fontana’s sound and video installation, River Sounding, exhibited in 2010 at Somerset House. Fontana is a renowned modernist sound sculptor and his approach was to spend long months harvesting images, recording river sounds along the Thames and its estuaries, which he then edited into his final artwork – sited primarily in the courtyard, the light wells and the Dead House (so called because of three excavated gravestones embedded for display on a wall).

I decided to simulate – on a small scale – Fontana’s approach, using research, assemblage or collage, while hoping to discover an element that would lift my poem beyond reportage. On five trips to Somerset House, I made rough notes, working from the ground down: from the courtyard down to the lightwells and the Dead House. These notes I knocked up into separate sections to form the backbone of a sequence. But I didn’t know how to enter the poem, how to give it lyric voice. Then I remembered I had already written several uncollected small lyrics and, dragging them out, I stuck them in, now here, now there, editing ruthlessly, until the sequence found its final form. I can’t justify why I think the separate parts cohere – or maybe they don’t – since they were all written at various times of my life, but I was happy to find a home for my lost lyrics, alternating them with the Somerset House pieces throughout, swinging between the hard elements and the soft.

River Sounding

For six weeks the river has been brought

into dry dock – like the ark with its animals

on board – six weeks to tell its story.


Live feeds, hydrophones, accelerometers,

have cast a spell to subdue, to set adream,

bring audiences to listen, languages


in young mouths aflame with travel.

Our eyelids droop. We long for sleep, to lie

like Gulliver in long grass, eyes like pools


for rainclouds to traverse. The whistle buoys

are probes in our ears. Their story doesn’t reach us,

drowsy in the white noise of  the fountains.


We are all eyes, not ears. We like to watch

the pigeons, iridescence on their ruffs,

going about their business; the fat lady,


lifting her sari, paddling in the fountains.

We are impatient, too impatient to hear stories,

too sceptical of  history, too eager to connect.




There might have been music from the barn,

animal grunts on the other side of  the fence

or a barely discernible suck as I drew on a cigarette.


I could hear nothing from the goosehouse and the silence

that lay over the fields, distant copse, and far away

over the sea itself, was a silence you could smell.


It smelt of  frost and dung, nicotine in my hair.

A young couple, sitting on stools outside a cottage

in Connemara, would remember it for years.


My own partner, dead now, more than two years dead,

had no inkling of  it, tapping ferociously on his old

manual typewriter and I, leaning on the fence,


hearing the silence but without an inkling

of  the years, painful, diminishing, that lay ahead,

would hear it doubled, trebled, one silence


crouched within another, whenever I lay in bed,

the radio on like conversation under the sea,

as I pulled the duvet up and over my ears.




Through it all, the drone, the whine.

Foghorns, whistle buoys, bells that clang together

from the four points of  the compass,


sink into silence as you raise your head

to listen: that one note, mechanical

and lonely, orphaned from the river.


The fountains become meadow, become grass.

Kneel to their own feet, lift and rise like

glass jelly fish on stems. Sounds at my back –


call and response, chatter, consolation.

Untethered sounds with nowhere to go

but into the void, calling out their –


‘I am bull, I am horn, I am herd’.

The animals are lowing in their stalls.

The lonely buoy, the long-necked bell.


‘Wish-wish’ the fountains go. ‘Over here,

over here’, go the bells. ‘John!’

the big clock strikes. ‘Jim, Jim!’


the little ones say. ‘The experience

being out of  control’ a voice butts in,

signing off  to a darling on the other end.




Without my love, there is no song.

Without my love, no silence.

A carousel without a pole,


two apple halves without a whole,

no centre, no circumference.

Without him, the idea of  him,


desire draws up its blanket.

Stars come out and look about,

a halfway moon gives way to doubt


with no one here to thank it.

Ears grow deaf, eyes grow dim,

and why is the street so long?


The best is over, you know it is,

for he took your best and made it his

inimitable song.


Without my love, there is no song, etc.




The shadow of  Seamen’s Hall, crowned

by five gilded urns, guards sunlight

from the lightwells. Who would forego


the light of  the courtyard, jet grove

of  fountains, for the dungeon damp,

cobbled dark of  the passageways?


My dead would never come here.

People of  sand and sunlight, people

of  snow and mountains. Who are these dead,


collective dead, poets so love to write of ?

My dead were never collective, were

as singular as they were in life, touching


all four points of  the compass, homeless

as these bells. Their names won’t thread

on a string, and too few of  them for chains.


Down in the catacombs, the walls are made

of  water, but not sweet domestic water

to cup in palms, sluice in public baths –


no, underworld water, rivers of  dream

and nightmare, rivers of  sons and daughters.

My living dead cling to their curtained rooms,


dim corridors, wedged open doors to parlours.

But the dead come one by one: each has

a stanza in the heart, each an echo chamber.




I have heard two voices in the river,

one of  the singer, one of  the listener

and both were the voices of  poetry.


One was a daughter and one a son,

one would listen as the other ran on

and both could do either equally.


Where one was blind, the other was dumb,

when one of  them wept, the other grew numb,

changing place simultaneously.


I have felt two terrors in my heart.

If  one fell silent, the other would start

but it was the silent one that broke me.


Time stepped in to heal the breach

till both of  my terrors were out of  reach

and I returned to normality.


But the river ran on, I knew it was there

in the either/or, the when and where,

hiding, dividing, mercilessly.




Enter the warmth of  the Dead House,

green subaqueous light, soft planking

underfoot, piped rumblings overhead.


Turbines, beam engines, flex their muscle,

lagged iron, steel, lift ten-ton weights.

The coal bunkers are eerily silent,


blacked in, set back in brick pilasters.

What do they know of  water, ambient

memories of river? Steel cables


are all they know of  sky, slow roar

of  the city, trundling above on giant rails.

We ourselves are the drums, arteries,


hollows through which the sounds vibrate.

There is nothing inside the Dead House.

What is inside, inside the rust-stained walls,


trapped, enormous, are the unfathomable

languages of  water. Nothing to do here

but feel. Listen. Choose to forget.




I never remember my dreams.

I wake exhausted from them.

And when I do it feels like


I’m wearing a skin inches thick –

glutinous and alien. I never remember

my dreams for I’m not who I am in them,


what bred them. God forbid

I should write, then read them

through the glass of  a vivarium


when I could be out in the sun!

I’m not answerable to the dark.

Let others sing the snake.




For a tidy soul, one who relishes balance

and, above all, symmetry, to be pencilled in

at a corner of  this courtyard is to inhabit


nothing so much as an architectural drawing.

Shadows under arches cross-hatched, banded

masonry, pediments, lintels, balustraded


parapets punctuating rooflines, become

two-dimensional, perfect in perspective.

But into the frame, like a princess in a story,


runs a young girl through the fountains, sparkles

on her dress and sash pink, silver, green.

She squeals, she streams; her father in city clothes


holding ready a large white handkerchief,

her grandfather in the shade reading a leaflet

in his quiet greys and signet rings.


Not the bells, whistle buoy in the distance,

fountains sparkling in the sun, but an Indian

lunchtime outing has served to make us real.




I barely cried. When my father died,

and my grandfather before him,

when I heard the news, I smiled.


Some force pulling up the corners

of  my mouth so irresistibly

it was all I could do not to laugh.


Some people cry for months, even if

they live abroad, the more so for not

being there, for the guilt, anger, love.


As far as death goes, I’m a child.

With a child’s curiosity, I wonder

what they look like. ‘Like an angel’,


they said of  him who was no angel,

‘clean as a baby, not a mark’.

I remember the soles of  his feet, my Dad,


pumiced and soft. The safety pin

he pinned to the lower end of  his sheet

for fear it would touch his mouth.




Today sympathy is our watchword. Sympathy

and symmetry, a line of  sun and shadow cutting us

into perfect halves at 5pm the clock confirms.


And dividing the blue above, a vapour trail,

long as the courtyard’s wide, driving its parallels.

Granite glints, silver water throws clouds of  spray –


great silver fans of  diamond. Pigeons burble

contentedly, sun warms the wool of  our coats, settles

on a cheek or two to burn. Strawberry red, red


as cherry pulp are the pigeon’s three spread talons.

Up and over it climbs the iron strut of  the chair.

Could it be drums at play, softly in the lightwells?


The river winding up for the day, packing away

its instruments? And the bell calls, lucidly in silence.

A woman is wearing a rose, two of  them in her hair.

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