2012, If We COuld Speak LIke Wolves, Kim Moore, poem, poems, Poetry, review, Smith/Doorstop Books, The Ferryman, verse, Wallace Hartley, Walney Channel
I eventually looked through the bedroom window, towards the source of the noise, and a ghost, street lit in Thames water, stared back. The thrashing in the river suddenly made sense: the teenage boy had leapt from the road bridge, and had been in the water a while. It was two in the morning on a sharp February night. My girlfriend stayed in the bedroom with the phone while I pulled him aboard, stood him by the stove, and stripped him. Minutes later, as he dried off and dressed in my clothes, I declined to hide his drugs as the police clambered aboard. He’d been fleeing from a gang, and a dive into the darkness over the side of a bridge had seemed the safest option. Minutes later, he was on his way. Never mind that he was under eighteen, or that he’d spent a fair while in a freezing, filthy river. For a few days afterwards, I wondered whether I’d see a grateful parent, dragging a contrite teenager in tow. My clothes, washed and ironed, would be returned, together with a bottle. No. I never saw the boy, or my clothes, again. He’d never even said thank you.
In Walney Channel, Kim Moore presents the channel as an ebb and flow: a breath. ‘There’s a door frame in the channel, / made of thin black twisted wood. // When the tide is in, it leads to water. When the tide is out, it leads to mud // and the beginning of the old road / across the channel. Listen at dusk // for the shouts of those who walked / that channel years ago.’ Like the door frame, the awkward consonants of ‘thin black twisted’ disrupt the scene and Moore’s couplet sits in space, as the door frame sits in the mud. In the second stanza, the repeated caesuras echo the ebb and flow of the tide, the cyclic transition of the Earth’s changing state from water to mud, a magical, unstable hinterland between things. As the tide ebbs, Barrow Island’s shipbuilding past is revealed in the exposed crossing, ‘like the spine of some forgotten animal, / turning in its sleep.’ That the crossing is a ‘spine’ reveals its crucial importance: it’s a support for the whole nervous system of the area, and the animal is not extinct, its is ‘forgotten,’ suggesting the persistence of memory and the spirit of a place. On a first reading, this causeway, alive with ghostly noise, felt gothic in a The Woman in Black sort of way, but that’s not it. Yes, the noises of the past can be heard but ‘Don’t stop, and if you hear them // calling, don’t turn around.’ This is closer to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice than Susan Hill’s horror, and we’re left wondering about the wisdom of dwelling on the memory of an industrial past.
However, in a poem like The Ferryman, Moore presents humanity as hopelessly out of touch with the true nature of things: ‘They were waiting on the shore, / some with mobiles in their hands, / the words they thought / they’d have a chance to say / sitting round and smooth like stones inside their mouths, // some on their hands and knees, / feeling for spectacles, eyes tight / against the sun, not realising / the dark had gone, and some sit on chair-shaped rocks, / as if they can still feel the shunt // of the tube.’ Here, Moore offers us an exquisitely ironic reimagining of Canto III of Dante’s Inferno. Where Dante presents us with the anguish of the damned, Moore’s damned are still too engrossed in their smartphones to really notice the situation. Nevertheless, the repetition of ‘some’, a Classical rhetorical device, adds an underlying solemnity to the situation before the absurdity of our health and safety culture is exposed, as Charon ‘holds up / his hand for them to stop / but being without a tongue / he cannot explain the boat / was only built for twelve.’
Shipbuilding haunts the collection and, if the ludicrousness of the modern is presented in a poem like The Ferryman, then the collection’s structure twists this note. Wallace Hartley was the Titanic’s bandmaster, ‘And when he was found, still in his uniform, / his violin strapped to his back, people began / to remember the way he’d played each night, / not just the last, the dip and turn of his shoulders / as he led the orchestra through a waltz, the way the ship was all lit up and smiling / like a brand new town, those nights before / the boats were counted.’ Pulled from the freezing Atlantic, ‘still in his uniform,’ Moore suggests not only Hartley’s unswerving sense of vocation, but also his stillness – silenced, at peace, frozen even. And ‘people began / to remember the way he’d played,’ and Hartley is recast as Orpheus, an enchanter, leading us deep into an underworld where ‘the ship was immense and black.’
Kim Moore’s If We Could Speak Like Wolves offers us the haunting, barren, shape-shifting landscape of the estuary, a landscape as bewildering as any fairytale forest and requires us to ask unsettling questions about ourselves, challenging any easy escapes into a fantasy of nostalgia.
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