The Rivers Voice: An anthology of poetry
Ed Angela King & Susan Gifford for Common Ground
Rivers, streams, waterfalls, wells, brooks, forest pools and mountain lakes have long provided a powerful muse for writers, poets, artists and musicians. From lively mountain brooks and thunderous waterfalls to the lazy, decadent sprawl of estuaries as the river runs out to sea, The River’s Voice collects over 180 poems about rivers in this captivating and varied anthology.
The River’s Voice by no means restricts itself to the bucolic and romantic (although does include classic works such as Wordsworth’s lofty “Derwent River” and John Clare’s rustic tableau, “The Ford”), but also explores the dirt and decay of modern urban river environments (“The Moscow river smells like post-office glue” in Osip Mandelstam’s “The factories, bathing in the Moscow river”).
River animals and birds form the subject of several of the poems including Ted Hughes’ “An Eel” with its arresting description of a river eel, her “mouth grin-long and perfunctory/undershot predatory” and John Ormond’s poetic description (almost exhausting to read) of the salmon’s epic journey from sea to freshwater spawning grounds: “they lunge and strike/against the hurdles of the rock/though hammering water/beats them back/still their desire will not break/They flourish, whip and kick/Tensile for their truth’s/sake, give to the miracle/of their treadmill leaping.” Portraits of kingfishers, otters, dippers and wagtails are scattered through the book, adding colour, personality and natural history interest.
Rivers are also vehicles for more conceptual poetry, such as Stewart Conn’s short but expressive “Lothian Burn” where the movement of the river downstream morphs into language itself: “the labials and gutterals/of this burn as it gurgles/downhill, locality of accent/ in vowel and consonant … until in mossy outcrop/it comes to a glottal stop.” Angling for evasive fish is a neat simile for the difficulties of a poet when casting about for words which escape his intellectual net in Adrian Henri’s playful poem “Angler,” “Later/he trudges past, his creel/empty, sees my empty/notebook, smiles a secret smile/of complicity.”
The anthology concentrates on British rivers (and there are several about the river Thames), but one or two from more exotic climes are included too, such as Margaret Atwood’s “Vermilion Flycatcher, San Pedro River, Arizona” with its murderous undertones.
The River’s Voice is a well-stocked anthology of a huge variety of poems on the subject of rivers and it forms a triad with Common Ground’s two other anthologies, one on trees: “Trees be Company” and the other inspired by fields and meadows: “Field Days.”
With its lush and richly evocative foreword by the late Roger Deakin (writer and environmentalist who famously travelled the length and breadth of Britain by swimming the country’s rivers, pools and waterways – “We are ourselves nine-tenths water, have feelings that overflow or brim over, and writers, especially, dread drying up”), this book is a real delight – and a wonderful resource to dip into and savour, or read from cover to cover.
Review by Sarah Jameson
Published February 2000