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.
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
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.