Authors: Alice Oswald
Too many people have helped with this poem for me to mention them all, but the following, in no particular order, have made significant contributions:
|lain Mounsy||Ric and Angie Palmer|
|Steven Westcott||Simon Ellyatt|
|Sue Bragg||Chris Scoble|
|Anonymous walker||Richard Scoble|
|Peter Oswald||Jim Scoble|
|Judy Gordan-Jones||Ted Bloomfield|
|Mark Beeson||Kevin Pyne|
|David Pakes||Sid Griffiths|
|Mike Maslin||Matt Griffiths|
|Rupert Lane||John Riddel|
|Susan Clifford||Jilly Sutton|
|Angela King||Jane Hill|
|Steve Roberts||Sean Borodale|
|John Wilson||Caroline Drew|
|Andrew Dutfield||Captain Dadd|
|Eddie Campbell Thomas||Kirsten Saunders|
|Nigel Gibson||John Lane|
|Mike Ingram (for National Trust)||The Trustees of Dartington|
|Charles and Mary Keen||Hall|
|William Keen||Chris Burcher|
|Ellie Keen||Trudy Turrell|
|Laura Beatty||Tim Robins|
|Barrie Lorring||Ray Humphries|
|3 anonymous poachers||Tony Dixon|
|Joe and Lyle Oswald||Roger Deakin|
|Bram Bartlett||Colin Hawkins|
This poem was written and developed as part of the Poetry Society’s Poetry Places scheme funded by the ‘Arts for Everyone’ budget of the Arts Council of England’s Lottery Department.
This poem is made from the language of people who live and work on the Dart. Over the past two years I’ve been recording conversations with people who know the river. I’ve used these records as life-models from which to sketch out a series of characters – linking their voices into a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea. There are indications in the margin where one voice changes into another. These do not refer to real people or even fixed fictions. All voices should be read as the river’s mutterings.
Who's this moving alive over the moor?
An old man seeking and finding a difficulty.
Has he remembered his compass his spare socks
does he fully intend going in over his knees off the military track from Okehampton?
keeping his course through the swamp spaces
and pulling the distance around his shoulders
the source of the Dart â Cranmere Pool on Dartmoor, seven miles from the nearest road
and if it rains, if it thunders suddenly
where will he shelter looking round
and all that lies to hand is his own bones?
tussocks, minute flies,
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â wind, wings, roots
He consults his map. A huge rain-coloured wilderness.
This must be the stones, the sudden movement,
the sound of frogs singing in the new year.
Who's this issuing from the earth?
The Dart, lying low in darkness calls out Who is it?
trying to summon itself by speaking â¦
the walker replies
An old man, fifty years a mountaineer, until my heart gave out,
so now I've taken to the moors. I've done all the walks, the Two
Moors Way, the Tors, this long winding line the Dart
this secret buried in reeds at the beginning of sound I
won't let go of man, under
his soakaway ears and his eye ledges working
into the drift of his thinking, wanting his heart
I keep you folded in my mack pocket and I've marked in red
where the peat passes are and the good sheep tracks
cow-bones, tin-stones, turf-cuts.
listen to the horrible keep-time of a man walking,
rustling and jingling his keys
at the centre of his own noise,
clomping the silence in pieces and I
I don't know, all I know is walking. Get dropped off the military track from Oakehampton and head down into Cranmere pool. It's dawn, it's a huge sphagnum kind of wilderness, and an hour in the morning is worth three in the evening. You can hear plovers whistling, your feet sink right in, it's like walking on the bottom of a lake.
What I love is one foot in front of another. South-south-west and down the contours. I go slipping between Black Ridge and White Horse Hill into a bowl of the moor where echoes can't get out
and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bank, a foal of a river
one step-width water
of linked stones
trills in the stones
glides in the trills
eels in the glides
in each eel a fingerwidth of sea
in walking boots, with twenty pounds on my back: spare socks, compass, map, water purifier so I can drink from streams, seeing the cold floating spread out above the morning,
tent, torch, chocolate, not much else.
Which'll make it longish, almost unbearable between my evening meal and sleeping, when I've got as far as stopping, sitting in the tent door with no book, no saucepan, not so much as a stick to support the loneliness
he sits clasping his knees, holding his face low down between them,
he watches black slugs,
he makes a little den of his smells and small thoughts
he thinks up a figure far away on the tors
waving, so if something does happen,
if night comes down and he has to leave the path
then we've seen each other, somebody knows where we are.
falling back on appropriate words
turning the loneliness in all directions â¦
through Broadmarsh, Â Â Â Â Â Â under Cut Hill,
Sandyhole, Sittaford, Hartyland, Postbridge,
Belever, Newtake, Dartmeet, the whole
unfolding emptiness branching and reaching
and bending over itself.
I met a man sevenish by the river
where it widens under the main road
and adds a strand strong enough
to break branches and bend back necks.
Rain. Not much of a morning.
Routine work, getting the buckets out
and walking up the cows â I know you,
Jan Coo. A Wind on a deep pool.
Jan Coo: his name means So-and-So of the Woods, he haunts the dark.
Cows know him, looking for the fork inÂ
They know the truth of him â a strange man â
I'm soaked, fuck these numb hands.
A tremor in the woods. A salmon under a stone.
I know who I am, I
come from the little heap of stones up by Postbridge,
Postbridge is the where first road crosses the Dart
you'll have seen me feeding the stock, you can tell it's me
because of the wearing action of water on bone.
Oh I'm slow and sick, I'm
trying to talk myself round to leaving this place,
but there's roots growing round my mouth, my foot's
in a rusted tin. One night I will.
And so one night he sneaks away downriver,
told us he could hear voices woooo
we know what voices means, Jan Coo Jan Coo.
A white feather on the water keeping dry.
Next morning it came home to us he was drowned.
He should never have swum on his own.
Now he's so thin you can see the light
through his skin, you can see the filth in his midriff.
Now he's the groom of the Dart â I've seen him
taking the shape of the sky, a bird, a blade,
a fallen leaf, a stone â may he lie long
in the inexplicable knot of the river's body
in a place of bracken and scattered stone piles and cream teas in the tourist season, comes the chambermaid unlocking every morning with her peach-soap hands: Only me, Room-Cleaning, number twenty-seven, an old couple â he's blind, she's in her nineties. They come every month walking very slowly to the
waterfall. She guides him, he props her. She sees it, he hears it. Gently resenting each other's slowness: (Where are we turning you are tending to slide is it mud what is that long word meaning burthensome it's as if mud was issuing from ourselves don't step on the trefoil listen a lark going up in the dark would you sshhhhh?) Brush them away, squirt everything, bleach and vac and rubberglove them into a bin-bag, please do not leave toenails under the rugs, a single grey strand in the basin
shhh I can make myself invisible
with binoculars in moist places. I can see frogs
hiding under spawn â water's sperm â whisper, I wear soft colours
whisper, this is the naturalist
she's been out since dawn
dripping in her waterproof notebook
I'm hiding in red-brown grass all different lengths, bog bean, sundew, I get excited by its wetness, I watch spiders watching aphids, I keep my eyes in crevices, I know two secret places, call them x and y where the Large Blue Butterflies are breeding, it's lovely, the male chasing the female, frogs singing lovesongs
she loves songs, she belongs to the soundmarks of larks
I knew a heron once, when it got up
its wings were the width of the river,
I saw it eat an eel alive
and the eel the eel chewed its way back inside out through the heron's stomach
like when I creep through bridges right in along a ledge to see where the dippers nest.
Going through holes, I love that, the last thing through here was an otter
(two places I've Seen eels, bright Whips of flow
by the bridge, an eel watcher
like stopper waves the rivercurve slides through
trampling around at first you just make out
the elver movement of the running sunlight
three foot under the road-judder you hold
and breathe contracted to an eye-quiet world
while an old dandelion unpicks her shawl
and one by one the small spent oak flowers fall
then gently lift a branch brown tag and fur
on every stone and straw and drifting burr
when like a streamer from your own eye's iris
a kingfisher spurts through the bridge whose axis
is endlessly in motion as each wave
photos its flowing to the bridge's curve
if you can keep your foothold, snooping down
then suddenly two eels let go get thrown
tumbling away downstream looping and linking
another time we scooped a net through sinking
silt and gold and caught one strong as bike-chain
stared for a while then let it back again
I never pass that place and not make time
to see if there's an eel come up the stream
I let time go as slow as moss, I stand
and try to get the dragonflies to land
their gypsy-coloured engines on my hand)
whose voice is this who's talking in my larynx
who's in my privacy under my stone tent
where I live slippershod in my indoor colours
who's talking in my lights-out where I pull to
under the bent body of an echo are these your
fingers in my roof are these your splashes
Everyone converges on bridges, bank holidays it fills up with cars, people set up tables in the reeds, but a mile either side you're back into wilderness. (
.) and there's the dipper bobbing up and down like a man getting ready, hitching his trousers. I'm crouching, I never let my reflection fall on water,
I depend on being not noticed, which keeps me small and rather nimble, I can swim miles naked with midges round my head, watching wagtails, I'm soft, I'm an otter streaking from the headwaters, I run overland at night, I watch badgers, I trespass, don't say anything, I've seen waternymphs, I've seen tiny creatures flying, trapped, intermarrying, invisible
upriver creatures born into this struggle against
water out of balance being swept away
mouthparts clinging to mosses
round streamlined creatures born into vanishing
between golden hide-outs, trout at the mercy of rush
quiver to keep still always
swimming up through it hiding
freshwater shrimps driven flat in this struggle against
haste pitching through stones
things suck themselves to rocks
things swinging from side to side
leak out a safety line to a leaf and
grip for dear life a sandgrain or gravel for ballast
thrown into this agony of being swept away
with ringing everywhere though everything is also silent
the spider of the rapids running over the repeated note
of disorder and rhythm in collision, the simulacrum fly
spinning a shelter of silk among the stones
and all the bright-feathered flies of the fishermen, indignant under the waterfall, in waders, getting their feet into position to lean over and move the world: medics, milkmen, policemen, millionaires, cheering themselves up with the ratchet and swish of their lines
fisherman and bailiff
I've payed fifty pounds to fish here and I fish like hell, I know the etiquette â who wades where â and I know the dark places under stones where things are moving. I caught one thirteen pounds at
Belever, huge, silvery, maybe seven times back from the sea, now the sea-trout, he's canny, he'll keep to his lie till you've gone, you have to catch him at night.
Which is where the law comes in, the bailiff, as others see me, as I see myself when I wake, finding myself in this six-foot fourteen-stone of flesh with letters after my name, in boots, in a company vehicle, patrolling from the headwaters to the weir, with all my qualified faculties on these fish.
When the owls are out up at Newtake. You cast behind and then forwards in two actions. Casting into darkness for this huge, it's like the sea's right there underneath you, this invisible
now I know my way round darkness, I've got night vision, I've been up here in the small hours waiting for someone to cosh me but
it's not frightening if you know what you're doing. There's a sandbar, you can walk on it right across the weirpool but
I hooked an arm once, petrified, slowly pulling a body up, it was only a cardigan
but when you're onto a salmon,
a big one hiding under a rock, you can see his tail making the water move,
you let the current work your fly
all the way from Iceland, from the Faroes,
a three-sea-winter fish coming up on the spate,
on the full moon, when the river spreads out
a thousand feet between Holne and Dartmeet and he climbs it,
up the trickiest line, maybe
maybe down-flowing water has an upcurrent nobody knows
it takes your breath away,
generations of them inscribed into this river,
up at Belever where the water's only so wide
you can see them crowded in there
shining like tin, the hen-fish swishing her tail
making a little vortex, lifting the gravel
which is where the law comes in â I know all the articles, I hide in the bushes with my diploma and along comes the Tavistock boys, they've only got to wet their arms and grab, it's like shoplifting. Names I won't mention. In broad daylight, in the holding pools. Run up and stone the water and the salmon dodges under a ledge. Copper snares, three-pronged forks â I know what goes on, I'm upfront but I'm tactful.
I wear green for the sake of kingfishers.