Read Dart Online

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:

Tom Greeves
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
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.

Author Note

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?

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 – 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,

           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 …
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 …

through Broadmarsh,             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 – 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 in 

They know the truth of him – a strange man –

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 – I've seen him

taking the shape of the sky, a bird, a blade,

a fallen leaf, a stone – 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 – 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 – water's sperm – 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 – who wades where – 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 – 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 – I know what goes on, I'm upfront but I'm tactful.

I wear green for the sake of kingfishers.

Other books

Sweet Seduction Stripped by Nicola Claire
Bring Me Home by Candi Wall
Twisted Affair Vol. 4 by M. S. Parker
The Skull by Philip K. Dick
Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes
War 1812 by Michael Aye