Khadija Rouf reviews Notes on Water by Amanda Dalton (Smith|Doorstop, 2022)
From the moment Amanda Dalton’s pamphlet slid out of its envelope I felt as if I was holding a small and precious gem. It’s immediately arresting and intriguing partly because of the Prussian blue cover but also because it is printed in tête-bêche style, so technically neither of the two poems that it contains is prioritised in terms of which comes first – both are called Notes on Water. The poems meet in the middle of the book, and they are separated by a centre fold of 36 paned images of calm waters, slightly ruffled at the surface.
This thoughtful and careful design captures many of the themes of the collection. The world is turned upside down by griefs and losses. Things are fluid, looping and rippling into each other and breaching their usual boundaries. And there is a visual mark of the importance of water in our lives, literally and symbolically. This pamphlet reflects on the emotional flooding of grief, the devastating floods caused by climate change, the mythology and memory of water, on impermanence, and ultimately, on transformation and hope.
Dalton has collaborated with poet Colette Bryce and sound designer Laurence Nelson on a version of Notes on Water for BBC Radio 3.BBC Radio 3, Between the Ears, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m001620r Dalton and Bryce’s readings add emotional resonance to the work, and Nelson’s soundscape design breathes life into them. In the programme, Dalton talks about what it means to come from a town with three rivers and a canal. She dreams about water. She also discloses that her partner was told he was terminally ill as she was writing the collection, and died only eight weeks after he was diagnosed.
The collection time travels between the past and present, her partner a constant presence.
This pamphlet reflects on the emotional flooding of grief, the devastating floods caused by climate change, the mythology and memory of water, on impermanence, and ultimately, on transformation and hope
One of the two poems opens with the narrator swimming in a swimming pool inside a broken building. There is a sense of fracture, and wreckage, and being out of her depth. Childhood party paraphernalia floats past – a pink balloon and paper cups. She talks of the flooding, the drowning and the breaching of natural processes, how water fills, circulates:
The Calder, Colden, Hebden Water, all in town.
I hate that river.
The one that was in my house.
Dalton captures the reality of flooding, its brutality, force and destruction, with images of homes full of slime and mud, a man “in tears in the road with his dog on his shoulders, looking at his half- / submerged front door”. Her anger at tourists turning up to gawp is visceral. She thinks of the collapse of entire buildings as erosion causes collapse, dragging all the props of our daily lives into the sea:
I thought of the hotel that fell into the sea,
Of the crockery and napkin rings still buried in the hill,
Of the floating coat hangers, the reading spectacles
A guest forgot to pack in his haste.
The man “who will leave in winter” appears quietly. He is her partner, dowsing for water, and, she writes finally, he reaches the sea. There is a sense that this is the time after his death. She writes of being in the Cocytus, the river of wailing and lamentation in Greek mythology. There, she reaches the darkest waters, the deepest depths. There, she transforms, changing shape, becoming a fish, growing fins – she keeps swimming:
and though I can’t see a thing
Through these useless eyes,
They open and I wake.
There is a sense of survival, transformation and wakening at the end of this poem.
And then the reader can turn the book upside down, to read the second poem – or is it the first? This is more clearly moored in the dying days of her partner. Again, there is a flood outside – the living room is reflected in the yard, the sideboard and piano are outside, but this time the lens has zoomed out to third person narrative, watching from afar.
As well as the deep loss of her partner, Dalton also writes of climate grief, watching the crises unfold on the news, with “half the world underwater, the rest in flame”
Dalton paints powerful images of her partner – “Upstairs, he lies soaked in pain“ – and of the long haul of waiting for the doctor to come. She seeks refuge in photographs and memories of being with him on past holidays, watching dolphins. But even recalling happier times she wonders about his illness and whether it was stalking him then. She remembers an incident, him slipping “in a storm of magnolia / blossom strewn like confetti on the muddy bank” and wonders if this was a sign that he was ill. This poem is washed with beautiful images of the natural world, words that sound magical in the speaking – bladderwort, white driftwood – though the natural is also contrasted with the mess that humans have made – lager cans, rusty metal, plastic bags. She lists these finds, as any of us might, when we are trying to cope with storms within.
There is keen and affecting imagery of her partner, as his life fades,
In just seven weeks he goes
from coffee and wine
to peppermint tea
to tiny fruits
on a spoon
His consumption of water is reduced to “just a drop on the tongue, like this”, and then he is fragile, a “fledgling”.
After his death, she is left with his clothes, washing them, waiting for them to dry. They are full of memories and absences. She writes beautifully about mundane things in a time of grief – a chipped tooth, the car breaking down, invoices falling through the door. Then there is more flooding, the river transformed to something ferocious and unrecognised. Everyday objects are spewed up; a dead jackdaw, a pushchair, a bin. She tries to walk on a familiar woodland route, but the path has gone. This loss of the loved, the familiar, is acute. She waits for her partner to come home and he doesn’t.
As well as the deep loss of her partner, Dalton also writes of climate grief, watching the crises unfold on the news, with “half the world underwater, the rest in flame”. Again, there is overwhelm, the flooding of emotion within. And again she returns to the image of the fractured swimming pool, the sense of drowning:
breaststroke weak, can’t see a thing,
but somehow, somehow she doesn’t drown,
In Notes on Water Dalton examines the liminal spaces of relational grief and climate grief, interweaving themes of loss, flooding and hope. The poems are fluid, they ripple and reflect. Ultimately there is a confluence, where there is profound and surreal transformation. The loss is enormous, but somewhere at the end there is the quiet promise of adaptation and survival. Of hope.
Dr Khadija Rouf is a clinical psychologist and writer, with a growing interest in the arts and mental wellbeing. She has been working in the NHS since 1991. She also has an MA in Poetry from Manchester Metropolitan University. Her poetry has been published in Orbis, Six Seasons Review, Sarasvati and she is honoured to be included in the NHS poetry anthology, These Are The Hands, edited by Katie Amiel and Deborah Alma (2020). Her poem Tacet recently won joint second prize in the health professional’s category of The Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine, and her pamphlet House Work (Fair Acre Press, 2022) is available here.