Into something rich and strange

SALT WATER by Andrew Motion, Faber pounds 7.99

The voyage, the most durable of all metaphors for life, is one that Andrew Motion has used since his first book, The Pleasure Steamers. Salt Water is his most intense exploration yet of this metaphor and of the element that both sustains and threatens life (as in Heaney's Seeing Things). There are three major items here, each of which would have provided a powerful thematic centre on its own: the long opening poem, "Fresh Water", follows the Thames from its source to London, and then back again in an imaginative narrative about Ruth Haddon, the writer's friend, drowned on the Marchioness. The second major piece is the title-poem, which tells in interspersed quatrains the terrible 12th-century legend of the Orford merman who failed to speak even under torture and was "slid tail-first" back into the sea. And the third is the book's "Part Two", a prose account of Motion's journey by sailing-ship from Tower Bridge to Naples, retracing Keats's voyage to his death in 1820, undertaken as research for Motion's biography of Keats (memorably filmed in 1996 by the BBC).

For a number of reasons, Motion's prose memoir far transcends the television version, compelling as that was. As poet-novelist, Motion is primarily a writer, and a highly self-examining one. Indeed one of his most affecting works was the prose memoir of his mother's death in Poetry Review (there are strikingly parallel synergic family memoirs by Michael Longley and Craig Raine). In Motion's Keats voyage we become progressively more distanced from the dying Keats, at least in any way we might have anticipated finding him. Certainly some of the Keats quotations express the book's centre: "Is there another life? Shall I awake and find all this a dream? There must be - we cannot be created for this sort of suffering." And at the end: "O what an account I could give you of the Bay of Naples if I could once more feel myself a Citizen of this world." But Motion can make a Dantesque return to this world, denied to Keats: a distinction of absolute importance.

An early poem of Motion's begins "It was straight out of Conrad but true." The strange strength of this magnificent brief memoir - it takes 54 pages - is that a journey which is described with such unportentous graphicness can also be a progress in imaginative self-abnegation. Art concealing art indeed! For an example of the unportentous, Motion in a fit of deep gloom (characteristically described with neither self-pity nor self-accusation) is greeted by one of the crew who "belches vilely" and cheerfully remarks "Wind!"; the author comments laconically, "I want to stick a marlin spike up his arse and throw him to the shark which has just idled past, its fin slick and alert." Hardly a mystical reflection; yet the Conradian theme traces the highly interior progress of the mystic's visionary boredom. "At some stages it occurs to me that I've never been so bored in my life. But I don't want to be anywhere else, doing anything else. My boredom isn't painful - it's like a trance, a rapture."

This is not the book's conclusion. The dying Keats, alas, was not able to become again a Citizen of the World. Salt Water ends with troubled Conradian awkwardness in the modern poet's attempt to chafe himself back into life. And of course once the lesson that "my life need not always be the one I am living" has been learnt, the book entirely supports a re-entry into life.

Motion's exhilarating gift for tactile description has an integrity which exposes the meretriciousness of such things as Golding's Conradian pastiches. This strength is as much in evidence in the poems as in the memoir, and there is an extraordinarily sustained web of reference across the two forms which contributes to the book's coherence: the tragic merman is echoed both in the young shark thrown back into the sea, and in the crab, "pale green, which lay on its back wriggling, then got booted over the side. What did it think had happened to it, snatched from its mid-Biscay existence for a moment? A glimpse of the afterlife." No prevaricating question mark at the end, notice. The book is full of such passages of dry, elegant, original ordinariness. There are other recurrences: Motion chafes his way back into emotional life, in a haunting paradox, by spending the two hours of a bus journey reliving the pain of his mother's death. But she is also in the body of the book in the harsh materialist tragedy of "The Spoilt Child", and in her brusque dismissal of any attempt to dramatise her death in "Dead March": "I wasn't 'whisked away': I broke my skull."

This conclusively illustrates Motion's greatest and most distinctive gift, which is to look squarely at the world and describe it with a plain and unsentimental eloquence that makes worldly value seem all the more unquestionable. The more you read this book, the more clearly it emerges as a rare masterpiece of feeling and sensual evocation. Perhaps after all this is Keats for our age.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape