As I was putting the references for this review/essay/response together, I noticed a common theme in each of the poems I’d picked. Death, renewal, heritage. Lots of these poems encompass much more than just that, but it seems like a lot of poets know a simple thing: we come from the water, and we’ll go back there eventually.
It’s obvious to note that climate change may have impacted the way poets in my generation look at water, water imagery, and nature. Maybe we were taught that nature poetry was a bit fusty, old-fashioned, not for us, and we should look inward. I believe that by looking outward, studying things that can’t speak in ways we were shown to understand, we can find something new, about ourselves, our species, how we inhabit and occupy space. In 2021, I wrote an essay about space and time in the proximity to short stories, and now I’m moving my focus to nature poetry, and how it circulates similar themes.
In ‘Midnight Vessel Across the Great Sea’, Alycia Pirmohamed uses what I call ‘half-line breaks’ to visually demonstrate threads of memory, ancestry, and inheritance. The first time I saw these types of line breaks were in Shane McCrae’s poetry, where another phrase or line is lineated by spacing, rather than a new line on the page. I love how it enhances double meaning, how it can be seen as more of a half breath than a new thought, and encourages perception and analysis from readers. Alycia Pirmohamed is one of my favourite authors, and was one of the first poets I read that brought together ancestry, religion, race, and nature. The line ‘inheritance is another form of second sight’ is an example of Pirmohamed’s skill in playing with double meaning. This line could hint at a form of psychic connection with the past and future, or a way of looking through the past to find meaning, or patterns, that inform the present and future. The speaker continues, narrating ‘a tradition that sieves / right through my ancestor’s thread’, referencing two pages prior, where the speaker describes a sieve as a ‘counter memory’ which could work against one memory, or work in parallel. Pirmohamed effortlessly details the fog and fluidity of memory and how it can work against narrative. In ‘Midnight Vessel Across the Great Sea’, Pirmohamed discusses the tradition of sonnets and iambs, both building on, and ‘sieving’ through ancestral threads, which could refer to colonisation of language as well as having conflicting heritage.
Pirmohamed continues with synaesthetic detail, as the speaker describes ‘this echo is another velvet petal’, layering sound, touch, and sight together to create a unique image of reverberations through time, their correct/incorrect interpretations causing more echoes, and working in tandem. With hints of motherhood, tradition passed through women, the speaker laments: ‘she is the fine dark strand across / my memory’, using threads and strands to represent textures, hair, visual interpretations of time.
In Jorie Graham’s ‘I Catch Sight of the Now’, the speaker builds on the loose pronouns and identity from previous poems in this collection, stating, ‘yr hand is a claw full of hair’, with an experimental register to demonstrate the collapse of selfhood, fears of collapse and loss. The speaker loses their hair in the shower, and imagines themself falling through the drain, through to nothing, and wonders what nothing would be, saying ‘you can start carving the nothing’. Graham’s speaker, like Pirmohamed’s, visualises time and mortality into concrete images, trying to construct meaning from loss and grief. Unlike the speaker in ‘Midnight Vessel Across the Great Sea’, Graham’s loss is more contemporary and actualised, represented through the hair, showing the speaker’s hands as a claw, painting a scene of dehumanising the self through ageing, or through illness. This is seen in Notes on Water, split into two halves. The half I am focusing on is more narratively led, detailing the reason for the speaker’s breakdown in place. It appears the speaker has lost a loved one, to a long-term illness. Lines like, ‘upstairs he lies soaked in pain’ demonstrate the way water, and water imagery, have permeated this short chapbook, to show pain, unfathomable loss, and the unknown. The speaker isn’t sure when the subject started to die, wondering ‘or was it later […] the day he slipped and fell in a storm of magnolia’, trying to balance conflicting feelings of the meaning not mattering, but the slow weakness of the speaker’s loved one taking its toll.
The power and impact of water, finally, is shown through the next few stanzas in this half of Notes on Water, where the speaker remarks on ‘how wetness makes her fingers look like his’, linking the mirror image and absorbing nature of water to the speaker desperately trying to find a connection to their loved one after their death. This is further shown in the lines ‘everything hangs in his shape / those weeks before he died – so thin / too weak for an embrace’. The slight rhyme of shape and embrace leave a cadence best shown when spoken aloud, which lends itself well to the radio adaptation.
Below, I have written a short response to Notes on Water, informed by Amanda Dalton and the poets listed previously, using the double meaning and fluidity of time shown in these poems and lines to create an experimental, personal narrative of mental illness, loss and vulnerability.
Listen to Kayleigh Jayshree read ‘STAR’
‘Without them, waters pour down formless to the sea / to the blank brightness of a sky,
a dazzle of infinitely moving waves, / to a shore that, opening, leads everywhere,
to an exile that is everywhere the same.’ – Sally Purcell, ‘To Andrew’.
recollection I don’t want to remember,
I look at pictures of my hands until they don’t look like
my hands dipped in paint, I made wishing stars with the babysitter
while my parents looked around Cancun, taking everything in –
trying not to leave each other. I was seven,
next to dolphins in a bright blue enclosure
I drift near the edge, I can’t swim so I let my hands separate the water.
Printing my birth name on those wishing stars
in yellow paint thick as vomit
spread across walls white as hospital rooms
with starfished hands
dizzy spells from undiagnosed eating disorder, hanging onto consciousness
working in Co-Op.
I can’t faint it’s so embarrassing
snatches of another universe,
I pass out for the first time, patchwork comets
cutting into shelves and shelves of couscous and too many types of cheese.
Not afraid to die like I thought I would be, more resigned
trying to control my last thought
until I woke up
weeks into a hospital stay
I’m twenty years old
to a Wythenshawe corner shop
anorexic spots in the atmosphere flashing
like ambulance lights
or a bell
about to ring
for the first time
times I said I’d leave him, his eyes
never green, never blue, always sterile grey
mouth a half-open window
fingers grip like hot plastic, was it
dirty or clean? I never decided
contorted, hot, half-dead
it doesn’t have to be a star to feel like one
warning signs of manic episode:
walking home from work on my sixteenth birthday,
I realise I’ve pissed myself.
this is the worst it will ever get, I thought
counting down from five until I get to
Amanda Dalton, Notes on Water, Smith/Doorstop, 2022.
Jorie Graham, To 2040, Carcanet, 2023.
Ted Hughes, Lupercal, Faber&Faber, London, 1960.
Shane McCrae, Sometimes I Have Never Suffered, Corsair, 2020.
Alice Oswald, Nobody, Jonathan Cape, 2019.
Alycia Pirmohamed, Another Way to Split Water, Polygon, 2022.
Sally Purcell, Collected Poems, Anvil, 2002.