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
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
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.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice