The voices of the River Dart

The River Dart running to the sea

The River Dart, which gives Dartmoor its name, begins with two primary tributaries up on the high moor: the East Dart, with its source at Cranmere Pool, and the West Dart, starting north of Rough Tor. They join at Dartmeet, then the river flows south past Buckfast Abbey, Dartington and Totnes, turning tidal as it runs to the sea through the estuary at Kingswear and Dartmouth.

The name of the river most likely derives from the old Celtic Devonian language, possibly meaning "river of oaks," "oak stream," or "the sacred place of oak" ... and indeed, stretches of the the Dart still twist through low hills of ancient oak woodland.

Dawn from window

I love the Dart...as does Alice Oswald, a widely acclaimed poet (the first woman to serve as the Oxford Professor of Poetry in the position's 300 year history), and a family friend (her husband and mine run a theatre company together). Some years ago, when Alice was still living on Dartmoor, she walked the river from moorland to estuary to create a book-length poem titled Dart: a gorgeous evocation of the river's history, mythology, and shape-shifting presence in the life of the land.

At the start of the book Alice notes that the poem "is made from the language of people who live and work on the Dart. Over the past two years I've been recording conversations with people who know the river. I've used these records as life-models from which to sketch a series of characters -- linking their voice into a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea. There are indications in the margins where one voice changes into another. These do not refer to real people or even fixed fictions. All voices should be read as the river's mutterings."

The poem begins with the river's source at Cranmere Pool, seven miles from the nearest road:

Dart by Alice OswaldWho's this moving alive over the moor?

And old man seeking and find a difficulty.

Has he remembered his compass his spare socks
does he fully intend going in over his knees off the
   military track from Okehampton?

keeping his course through the swamp spaces
and pulling the distance around his shoulders

and if it rains, if it thunders suddenly
and all that lies to hand is his own bones?

Tussocks, minute flies,
           wind, wings, roots

He consults his map. A huge rain-coloured wilderness.
This must be the stones, the sudden movement,
the sound of frogs singing in the new year.
Who's this issuing from the earth?

The Dart, lying low in darkness calls out Who is it?
trying to summon itself by speaking ...

The walker replies:

An old man, fifty years a mountaineer, until my heart gave out,
so now I've taken to the moors. I've done all the walks, the Two
Moors Way, the Tors, this long winding line the Dart

this secret buried in reeds at the beginning of sound I
won't let go man, under
his soakaway ears and his eye ledges working
into the drift of his thinking, wanting his heart

I keep you folded in my mack pocket and I've marked in red
where the peat passes are the the good sheep tracks
cow-bones, tin-stones, turf-cuts.
listen to the horrible keep-time of a man walking,
rustling and jingling his keys
at the centre of his own noise,
clomping the silence in pieces and I

I don't know, all I know is walking. Get dropped off the military
track from Oakehampton and head down into Cranmere pool.
It's dawn, it a huge sphagnum kind of wilderness, and an hour
in the morning is worth three in the evening. You can hear
plovers whistling, your feet sink right in, it's like walking on the
bottom of a lake.

What I love is one foot in front of another. South-south-west and
down the countours. I go slipping between Black Ridge and White
Horse Hill into a bowl of moor where echoes can't get out

listen
a
lark
spinning
around
one
note
splitting
and
mending
it

and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bank, a foal
of a river

The little cabin on the River Dart

From here the "muttering voices" include a fisherman, a forester, a water nymph, the King of the Oak Woods, a tin-extracter, a woolen mill worker, a swimmer, a boatbuilder and many others.

"I'm very interested in water," Alice says. "I'm interested in the way that it is a natural art form -- it actually pictures the world for you. You walk outside, and you are suddenly able to see a flat world reflected in the river. It's almost like nature's way of representing the world to you. But I think perhaps more than that, I'm an incredibly restless person, and I really admire the way water sheds itself all the time. I learn a lot from that. I aim to be as fluid as water if I can be. I don't like settling into one kind of character -- I like to shed myself as I go along."

Dart is a gorgeous book that seems to bubble out of the peat of Dartmoor itself. I urge you to seek it out.

Writing on the river

About the imagery in this post:

The first picture above shows the tidal portion of the River Dart after it comes off the high moor, running through the south Devon countryside to the sea. (It's a Wikipedia/Creative Commons photograph.)

The other pictures, also of the tidal Dart, were taken by me a few years ago, during a solitary writing retreat at a waterside cabin loaned to me by good friends. 

Water, light, and solitude

I lost my heart to the river during those long, quiet days, and the Dart has it still.

My river home

Misty morning

The passage quoted above is from Dart by Alice Oswald (Faber and Faber, 2002), winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. All rights reserved by the author.


A blessing for a Tuesday afternoon

River 1

A Blessing 
by Denise Levertov (1923-1997)

'Your river is in full flood,' she said,
'Work on - use these weeks well!'

River 2

She was leaving, with a springy step, a woman
herself renewed, her life risen

River 3

up from the root of despair she'd
bent low to touch,

River 4

risen empowered. Her work now
could embrace more: she imagined anew

River 5

the man's totem tree and its taproot,
the woman's chosen lichen, patiently

River 6

composting rock, another's
needful swamp, the tribal migrations - 

River 7

swaying skeins rotating their leaders,
pace unflagging, and the need

River 8

of each threatened thing
to be. She had met

River 9

River 10

with the council
of all beings.

River 11

                                    'You give me my life,'
she said to the just-written poems,

River 12

long-legged foals surprised to be standing.

Dartmoor pony and foal

The poet waving farewell
is not so sure of the river.

Pony in the mist

Is it indeed
strong-flowing, generous? Was there largesse
for alluvial, black, seed-hungry fields?

Dartmoor pony and foal

Or had a flash-flood
swept down these tokens
to be plucked ashore, rescued

Tilly and the pony 1

only to watch the waters recede
from stones of an arid valley?

Tilly and the pony 2

But the traveler's words
are leaven. They work in the poet.

Crossing the field

The river swiftly
goes on braiding its heavy tresses,

brown and flashing
as far as the eye can see.

Home through the lanes

The poem above is from The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (New Directions, 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from Mary Oliver: New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1  (Beacon Press,2004). All rights reserved by the Levertov and Oliver estates. 


The writer's journey

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

What makes the writer's journey exhilarating, says Eleanor Cameron, is that "one never knows what will emerge from the unconcious, memories that, suprisingly enough, begin coalescing into a pattern, only dimly perceived at first. But before long, for some mysterious reason, this pattern begins taking on the substance and detail that tell the writer that another novel, not necessarily of the past, is coming into being.

"It is something to be grateful for because it can be devastating to see nothing in the offing. I remember Lloyd Alexander saying, when I congratulated him on his latest book, 'Oh, but I haven't an idea what to do next. It's terrible -- I'm utterly barren and it frightens me!' He had not the faintest notion that  The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha would appear within the next two years, not to speak of the Westmark Trilogy during the four after that.

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

"There are seven lines near the end of Cavafy's poem 'Ithaka' that particularly move me:

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

"As we sit at our desks, struggling to bring a conception into existence, we are always trying -- if we are serious and not simply working for money and attention -- to make ourselves worthy of the vision, no matter how modest the accomplishment. There, for me at least, lies the mingled hardship and true joy of writing, the journey taken."

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

''The life journey is a hero's journey," John Rowe Townsend agrees. "Although we may not feel very heroic, we are all embarked on the heroic quest, to live lives that have meaning for ourselves and others. We are on our individual Odysseys, our personal roads of trials. We have had our adventures, and we shall have more, but we shall come to Ithaka at last.''

The Wanderings of Odysseus Alan Lee

The art today is from The Wanderings of Odysseus by Rosemary Sutcliffe (1920-1992), a re-telling of the Odyssey for young readers, sumptuously illustrated by Alan Lee. Go here for an interesting interview with Alan on this book and many others.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.   
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


            - translated by Edmund Keeley

Words: The Eleanor Cameron and John Rowe Townsend quotes are from Innocence & Experience: Essays & Conversations on Children's Literature, edited by Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maquire (Lothrop Lee & Shepard, 1987). The poem in the picture captions is from C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems(Princeton University Press, 1975). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.

Pictures: The illustrations above are from The Wanderings of Odysseus by Rosemary Sutcliff (Frances Lincoln, 1995). All rights reserved by the artist. 


One last selkie tale

Grey seal and pup, Lincolnshire. Photograph by Dan Kitwood.

From "The Selkie Wife's Daughter" by Jeannine Hall Gailey:

    I always wondered why she sang so strangely

    at the spinning wheel, why her eyes held all

    the mourning of the darkest sea. And why

Grey seal and pup, Yorkshire. Photograph by Steve Race.

    she held me away,

    as if afraid of my skin, why my feet and

    hands were webbed with translucent sea–skin.

Grey Seal

    I used to bring her armfuls of yellow

    water iris to almost

    see her smile. I wondered why father

Grey Seal and pup, Norfolk. Photograph by Friends of Horsey Seals.

    never let me swim out against the waves,

    never let her walk the shores alone....

Grey seal pup, Norfolk. Photograph by Friends of Horsey Seals.

To read the full poem, go here.

Seal mother tickling her pup. Photograph by Elmar Weiss.

Words: The poem extract above, inspired selkie legends is from  Becoming the Villainess by Jeannine Hall Gailey (Steel Toe Books, 2006), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The photographs above are by Dan Kitwood, Steve Race, Elmar Weiss, and Friends of Horsey Seals (Norfolk). All rights reserved by the photographers.


The Otter Woman

Suspension by Kate O'Hara

Last week we were looking at "animal bride" figures: selkies, swan maidens, crane wives, and other half-animal/half-human creatures, trapped into marriage by mortal men who steal their animal skin or cloak of feathers. Such stories usually end when the skin is found again, releasing the enchanted spouse back into wild....

Today, I'd like to spotlight a thoroughly magical piece by Irish poet Mary O'Malley, which draws on old Celtic legends of the otter woman (or otter wife). 

Otter Sculpture by Ian EdwardsThe Otter Woman
by Mary O'Malley

He never asked why she always walked
By the shore, what she craved
Why she never cried when every wave
Crescendoed like an orchestra of bones.
She stood again on the low bridge
The night of the full moon.

One sweet, deep breath and she slipped in
Where the river fills the sea.
She saw him clearly in the street light -- his puzzlement.
Rid of him she let out one low, strange cry. . .

Otter photograph by Mark Hamblin

Mary O'Malley's poetry collections include A Consideration of Silk, Where the Rocks Float, The Knife in the Wave, Asylum Road, The Boning Hall, A Perfect V, and Valparaiso. For more about her beautiful work, you can listen to a good interview with the poet on American public radio here.

Newborn otter pup

Words: "The Otter Woman" by Mary O'Malley is from The Southern Review (Autumn 1995). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The lovely painting above is by Kate O'Hara, an illustrator based in Reno, Nevada. The otter sculpture is by Ian Edwards, based in the English south-west. (He's best known for his figurative work, but you can see more of his animal sculptures here.) The first otter photograph is by Mark Hamblin,  based in Scotland. The second is from a news article on otters, and was, alas, uncredited. All rights reserved by the artists.