Come dabble your toes with me, we have that river to meet.
Jeanette Winterson calls this ' a new kind of poetry...not content to work only with what exists already.'
Jane Wheatley of The Times suggests ' If you never read poetry, make an exception for this.'
Oh alright then I thought, I will.
Dart, was first published in 2002 and I have known of its existence and seen it around from the off, so why I had never explored it will remain one of the unknown mysteries of blog-kind, but discovering its secrets and hidden beauty has been one of the pleasures of this summer. The Dart is a river we drive alongside and over every time we cross Dartmoor, so to think how little I had even considered its existence quite shames me. If poetry is, amongst other things, about opening my eyes to what is around me, then Dart has more than fulfilled that task.
This is a mesmerising collection, a combination of poetry and recorded conversations that Alice Oswald had with the people who live and work on the Dart, somehow the whole is seamlessly woven together to create something quite astonishing. Expect to meet all manner of people... foresters, water bailiffs, fishermen, kayakers, tin extractors, poachers, walkers, boat-builders, woollen mill workers and of course you will meet the river.
Perhaps that was one reason it all touched that chord with me...because of course we too have one of those kayakers who regularly paddles the Dart Loop when he's here.
'Like last November, the river rose three or four feet in two hours,
right into the fields and I drove like mad to get to Newbridge. I could
hear this roaring like some horrible revolving cylinder...'
and the river replies
'come falleth in my push-you where it hurts
and let me rough you under, be a laugh
and breathe me please in whole inhale
come warmeth, I can outcanoevre you
into the smallest small where it moils up
and masses under the sluice gates...
I'm sorry my Kayaker pictures are a bit muddled,this might actually be him on the Zambezi, but it's big white water so I think you get the drift.
The Dart has a webcam watched online hourly and the Kayaker's friends will set off from London just to take on this 'whole river-power of Dartmoor' and yes, they are frequently outcanoevred by it... it can be fearsome and they know all too well that 'this jabber of pidgin river ' takes no prisoners as it lives its story and asks to be heard,
'will you rustle quietly and listen to what I have to say
Then of course we have the fishermen too, and though the men in this house don't fish the Dart (and nor do they poach it ) but they do fish the Tamar, so I understood that language and atmosphere, the thrill of the chase and that compelling moment when the river must be fished.
For other reasons I understood something else too and I smiled, as the water bailiff, whose job is to police the river and ensure it is only fished by license, describes his job ...
'which is where the law comes in - I know all the articles, I hide in the bushes with my diploma and along come 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 transported back about fifteen years or more because I think I might know some of their names too.
I'm furtively shown the salmon in the bath by the man of the house, when I've asked if I can wash my hands before and after examining the new baby.... I've seen their faces fall... she's going to see in the bathroom.
The same men who would regularly be in prison for a bit of petty burglary.
They'd tell you with enormous pride how they wouldn't ever do it on their own doorstep, good grief no, that wouldn't be right. They'd take the van up Axminster way and help themselves to the contents of those posh houses, which is why their own homes may have had old bits of blanket and cardboard stuffed in the broken windows, and rubbish piled high in the garden, but the carpets were lovely.
Their style so well-known to the police that they always got caught and banged to rights.
And I hate to say it but there was something entirely endearing about the families too, local characters, happy rogues the lot of them, though I know if it had been my house they'd burgled I wouldn't have been quite so enamored. The women used to love it when the men were doing their time, nice rest, no worries, concentrate on the children, and they still call out to me across the street if we meet in town.
'He's in again.' they say with a beaming smile.
'Jolly good' I reply and we do a thumbs up across Duke Street.
There are ferrymen on the Dart too,
'Dartmouth and Kingsweir -
two worlds, like two foxes in a wood,
and each one can hear the wind-fractured
closeness of the other.
I work the car ferry, nudge it over with a pilot boat,
backwards and forwards for twenty three years.'
and the whole idea of a ferryman lodges like a mythology in my mind, because I've been reading a book wherein there is mention of Dante's Divine Comedy (of which I know the requisite postage stamp amount) and the souls of the dead awaiting the Boatman to ferry them across to the Mountain of Purgatory.
And then I remember that Ralph McTell song The Ferryman which I seem to recall he wrote after reading Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, and Alice Oswald has sparked off another whole load of imagery and countless memories in my mind.
Books like this really do light the blue touch paper and take you to places you never expected to go and this one has transported me everywhere and I think will do so each time I pick it up.
I really do recommend listening to the audio version alongside if you can manage it.
To hear a poet read their own words is to become familiar with those words at their roots. I didn't 'get' The Wasteland until the day I heard a recording of T.S.Eliot reading it, that etched it in my memory for ever and Alice Oswald likewise. Alice has the most perfect reading voice, the timbre and the annunciation is pure and unfettered which gave me an undistracted and immediate access to the words, capturing the essence of this river. And don't worry if you can't nip up to the Dart when you've read this, I promise it will make you look at a river near you in a vibrantly new and refreshing way, and just as if you had dabbled your toes alongside me.