Oxford’s Donnington Bridge had a witty voice. As the university’s boat clubs fought for supremacy, they’d paint its arches, often with sharp references to popular culture and, as one college obliterated a rival’s efforts, a satirical dig might be thrown in too. This microculture, this clandestine war of words, waged with brushes in the dark, felt romantic, exciting and life-affirmingly trivial. However, after years of uninterrupted painting, the bridge fell silent and, when it found its voice, it had broken. The bridge had grown up. It spoke of Iraq, Afghanistan and of the torture in Abu Ghraib. Then, in 2012, with the drowning of Hussain Mohammed the ebb and flow of paint along the side of the bridge became fixed in time. Walk beneath it today, and you’ll see the tribute to Hussain untouched, untagged.
Flood Drain is Tom Chivers’ meditation on the river Hull and opens by charting the river’s course: ‘At Foredyke Clough the Stream narrows / & is named Wawne Drain, / Wawne Drain drains into the Hull at Roe Bank. / Hull drains into Humber. / Humber into sea. / This we know. / All of this we know.’ As the poem presents a bird’s eye view of the watercourse, Chivers achieves a sense of momentum as the lines concatenate (Wawne hands onto Wawne, Hull onto Hull): masculine verse for an urban watercourse. Chivers then changes the tone, riffing on William Langland‘s Piers Ploughman. The Medieval dream-vision, MLK and Chivers’ own vision of the Hull collide with beauty and humour: ‘I had a drain / I had a flood drain / in a somer seson / the day after St Jude’s day // I shoop me into shroudes / a pair of fingerless black gloves / from Poundland, Prospect St.’ This Hull is no less sublime than Langland’s bucolic Malvern hills and, as Langland’s speaker dresses ‘In habite as an hermite,’ so Chivers’ river also dons a disguise: ‘a drain or a dyke / being a river in the clothing / of a straight edge,’ straitened and managed but still a river, still untameable, whether channeled through storm drains beneath residential streets, or flowing in plain sight.
Chivers’ walk down the Hull is crammed with observational detail and this helps the reader unfamiliar with the locality to dream with him. The economy of the verse sidesteps the pitfall of caricature and, by looking closely at what’s there, it achieves the sort of beauty that George Shaw delivers in paint: ‘heavy discharge / at the confluence of Hull / & Beck & Drain a ruined barge / concealed behind tangle of sedge & reed / at the water’s edge / smash huts / burnt rubber / lost pony pads the bank / am I dreaming / Reckitt’s chimney / as a beacon / in the glare / of the fiery sun / spilling its whitening gauze across a derelict landing stage.’
Flood Drain’s second section rings with voices and is rocked by nature in the guise of the 2007 floods and the 2008 earthquake. Through these voices, city dwellers everywhere are presented as both comically and tragically disconnected from nature: ‘Beches and brode okes were blowen to the grounde / My mrs nearly pissed herself shouting THERE”S AN EARTHQUAKE! / I just rolled over in bed and said “just a bit of wind love” and fell back to sleep / I slept through it I was well gutted it looked like fun lol.’ The borrowed lines from Piers Ploughman that are interspersed through this section remind us of the timeless inevitability of flood but also hint at punishment for sin – from Noah onwards, there’s nothing gentle about water as a symbol of cleansing and renewal in Judeo-Christian terms. And so the dreamer reaches ‘Michael Barnett, 28 / trapped in the Western Drain / on Astral Close / in Hessle / Rest / in / Peace.’
Chivers’ Flood Drain speaks in many voices: some are beautiful, some are demotic and, pulled together, they achieve a confluence, like the Humber and the Hull, like the past and the present. This poem is the rumbling of Hull’s preparations to become UK City of Culture 2017, which will give the city plenty of time to know and love this poem. It is a gift to the city and I hope that it capitalizes upon this resource in its schools and public places in 2017 and beyond.