The Sunday Poem

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 28 U A Fanthorpe

Saturday 17 September 2011 14:46

Seventy this year, and every collection a best-seller (well, for poetry). She worked as a hospital clerk. Blending compassionate lyric, debunking humour, reflections on history, myth and art, plus sarky direct speech, the poems carry deep knowledge both of suffering and of how administration makes humanity disappear behind bureaucracy. In her new collection Safe as Houses, the Arthurian knights' horses become shaggy ponies in the English countryside, and the bad fairy at a christening dishes out a seedy Jeffrey Bernard-like life-forecast: "Right" says the baby. "That was roughly/What we had in mind." Six collections plus a Selected.

`Never apologise, never explain" is one of poetry's mottos. It has been didactic in the past, but these days poems that explain don't feel right; they work better if they simply suggest. This poem has to give us some unusual information to reach an intellectual insight. To get it across undidactically, Fanthorpe mixes nursery-rhyme, incantation, wit (starting with the title and epigram) different tonal registers and a central pun: lie low in the first line (returning in the last stanza and last word, lie lower, below) applies (like underground) to criminals and rivers.

The rivers are first characterised by fervent: connecting them to deep emotion (preparing for the last stanza, where the mythic underworld, with even deeper rivers, becomes our own psyche). Magogs makes them animate, and dangerous, carrying through the criminal idea. In the Book of Revelations, Gog and Magog are enemies of God. In British legend they are bad giants, defeated but living on in the landscape as hills. Aggressive verbs for their past act, carving London's basin (chewed, chiselled), counterpoint the city's trustful present (nestles). Nature's violence made a cradle for civilisation; but it has not gone away. Like bad giants or criminals, the rivers have gone under. Like ghosts, they return spectrally. Like spies, they infiltrate, causing illness (chronic bronchitis statistics, Fanthorpe's hospital vision of pain masked by bureaucratic-speak). They flood us (deluge, with apocalyptic overtones of Noah), sinking the city whose cradle they made. Criminals or rivers, the underground has power to destroy.

In this elastically structured poem, each stanza is a separate addition to the thought. Repeating sound-shapes hold each stanza together: basin, London, children, salmon; rain, suburban gardens, silken, taken; return, Westbourne, Sloane. The geological information in made comical by the "This is the House that Jack Built" rhythm (washed the clothes and turned the mills); which changes in five syllables at the stanza end. And wells were holy begins a new idea, hooking into the next verse and related to it by rhythm. They have gone under, another five syllables, mirrors the holy line and darkens its thought. Going under can mean dying; being defeated, like Gog and Magog. But dying gives you the power of the dead. What is under is sacred, but dangerous; what is boxed (in a coffin) is also magic. Instead of explaining this thought she uses wit (magician's assistant, bronchitis statistics), and archaising lyricism (silken slur haunts dwellings) which euphemises the rising damp of the title (with a pun on footing: damp walls, ghostly footsteps).

Under the wit and verbal grace is the revenant idea (buried alive, they will return). In the last stanza all this becomes an image for the unconscious. Phlegethon (River of Burning), Acheron (Groaning); Lethe (Forgetting); Styx, the black ferry to death: fire, pain, forgetting and mortality lie under the surface of our minds. Dreams, like a dowser's rod, connect us to them. They touch us, pull us down: bends reverses rising in the title. Giants, ghosts, spies, criminals, the first rivers were sinister forces shaping our cities. These ones shape our psyches. We feel their tug: they underlie our journey to death. But - says this rich, playful poem - we can have fun, take in profundity, comedy, myth, nursery-rhyme and dream, laugh at pomposity, find holiness and magic, on the way.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

"Rising Damp" appears in Standing To (Peterloo)

Rising Damp

("A river can sometimes be diverted but is a very hard thing to lose altogether" - Paper to the Auctioneers Institute, 1907)

At our feet they lie low,

The little fervent underground

Rivers of London

Effra, Graveney, Falcon, Quaggy,

Wandle, Walbrook, Tyburn, Fleet

Whose names are disfigured,

Frayed, effaced.

These are the Magogs that chewed the clay

To the basin that London nestles in.

These are the currents that chiselled the city,

That washed the clothes and turned the mills,

Where children drank and salmon swam

And wells were holy.

They have gone under.

Boxed, like the magician's assistant.

Buried alive in earth.

Forgotten, like the dead.

They return spectrally after heavy rain,

Confounding suburban gardens. They infiltrate

Chronic bronchitis statistics. A silken

Slur haunts dwellings by shrouded

Watercourses, and is taken

For the footing of the dead.

Being of our world, they will return

(Westbourne, caged at Sloane Square,

Will jack from his box)

Will deluge cellars, detonate manholes,

Plant effluent on our faces,

Sink the city.

Effra, Graveney, Falcon, Quaggy,

Wandle, Walbrook, Tyburn, Fleet

It is the other rivers that lie

Lower, that touch us only in dreams

That never surface. We feel their tug

As a dowser's rod bends to the surface below

Phlegethon, Acheron, Lethe, Styx

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