Learning to Swim: Flood by Clare Shaw
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
The Calder Valley floods of 2015 were biblical in proportion: steep-sided, this long valley is a water-bearing basin, a natural repository for the emptying of the hills and moors which loom over it to north and south. It is a place of topographical extremity; the roads which wend up from the valley bottom to the black teeth of overlooking villages such as Heptonstall and Mount Skip are vertiginous, rendering walkers wheezy, and cars locked in ‘first’.
But, as Ted Hughes found, it has austere, ravening beauty to excess, and the catastrophic deluge of three years ago somehow mirrors a landscape which Hughes invested with a prehistorical mysticism. It is a tribute to the astonishingly colourful array of humanity which huddles round the valley floors of Hebden and Todmorden that life and teeming endeavour proceeded, after the waters – as high as door lintels in places – subsided.
Hebden Bridge has been a magnet for artists of all shades for a generation – its increasingly high-profile arts festival reflects, to no small degree, the eclecticism of a community which has, in turn, partially displaced its indigenous predecessor. They are drawn to Hebden Bridge’s narcotic from all corners of the UK.
And narcotics in a less than figurative sense embody one of the town’s enduring preoccupations. As the poet Clare Shaw, whose wonderful new book, Flood, centralises the terrible events, found when she was similarly seduced by the valley. Caught directly in the deluge’s rising tide, Shaw is a witness who gives incantatory evidence of poetry’s power to define, rather than simply describe, the existential pain of being caught helpless in maelstroms both external and psychological.
Her microcosmic inventory of the town’s inhabitants pays homage to the picaresque, to the weird, the extrovert and the politically marginalised whose collective presence is consolatory and familial:
‘It was climbers and folkies and vegans and hippies
and commies and junkies and straight-talking farmers
and anarchist punks and hikers and drunks
and peaceniks and loonies of various colours
and lesbian mothers and day-tripping shoppers’ (from ‘Who knows what it’s like’).
This blustering rap is a whirling centrifuge of immersion. Shaw’s narrator is as submerged in the amniotic joy of inclusivity as the town is given up to inundations of water. That moving to the valley helped her to find ‘...my own people. My kin’ is a kind of comfort to her when the flood takes everything away. The coming together of people from all over the drowned valley to wield buckets and shovels on Boxing Day underwrites that strange concatenation of the unlikely.
And flooding, though ironically the real event occurred when Shaw was midway through a series of poems which now comprise the present volume, is much more than an overwhelming theme here. In the murky waters of the river and adjacent canal that were unified as fjord, the poet finds reinforced metaphors for submersion, for loss, for the losing of grip, for mental hydration, and for redemption.
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And elsewhere, the relentlessness of water is a figure for violation as much as division. In the terse, monosyllabic present of ‘Grabbed’, Shaw’s protagonist is freeze-framed to the worst of experiences on a country bike-ride. Rape is not identified here, but the poet’s skilled foregrounding of suggestion, whilst rendering the rapist palpably invisible, invites a terrible, vulnerable twilight into which we are all drawn. Shaw coalesces the only possible act of resistance to this shadowy figure, whose ‘arms are strong water / in flood’, in lines of desperately moving succinctness. The mind’s camera is overwhelmed in condensed pain, far from voyeurism:
‘To the small hands sweating like meat
and the flowers that she gripped
Make us feel it:
of the burning air, god
make her not care.’
The theme is established in ‘Grim’ whose double-vision blends the premonitory symbolism of fairytales (pace Grimm) with the very real spectre of child abuse, played out to the world’s scrutiny on television. Shaw’s impulse for repetition, itself replicated right across this volume, hammers at complacence. The blind-eye turning which accompanied Jimmy Savile’s flagrant abuse for decades – ‘who hadn’t yet guessed it – did fuck all about it’ - boils the arterial blood, in post-revelatory hindsight. But the poem’s final lines ring the truth of our continuing complicity:
‘they’re telling the same story over and over and
(there’s millions watching his hand up your jumper)
over and over and over and over.’
Shaw’s mantras are as inexorable as the floods she so effortlessly harnesses to metaphorical purpose. Exposure to the elemental catalysts of flood and sun and fire enables, rather than otherwise, a free-flowing revelation of the poet’s concealed self, and to this degree, one senses that Flood is a work of catharsis. The self-disclosure of the poem ‘A love song to punctuation’ describes the circumlocution of sexual love, of body-learning in terms of grammatical articulation. The grammar of love is a connective tissue without whose agency words are burned-out stars: ‘You are necessary / to my story. / Without you my arms have no meaning.’ And where little exists beyond the endogenous world of mental illness – a place where the ocean yields only the pyrrhic consolation of ‘lighters and broken glass’ - the scars of self-harm, of vulnerability, become the poet’s words, now commended to her audience:
‘Nobody intended this story
but I have written it down
on my arms.
And now you can read it’ (‘Rainhill Psychiatric Hospital 1992’).
Rain is seismic in Shaw’s imagination, as overwhelming a shaper of thought as to embody a metonymy, of the archetypally-defining sort proposed by Gaston Bachelard in his seminal Psychoanalysis of Fire. It follows Shaw’s every move, literally so in the poem ‘Pinnacle Ridge’ which describes the dangerously occluded route of a Lake District climb, as though the rain’s agency, whose presence commences and concludes the poem like an ongoing warning, disturbs mood as much as direction-finding.
Similarly, the catastrophically-bruised narrator of ‘I don’t remember anything about hydrangeas’ and ‘I came back’, where she is newly emergent from a psychiatric unit, retails an utterly persuasive convergence of the past and the present, in a synaesthesiac discourse of brutalising experiences. ‘Heavy rain falling’ precipitates the mental flow, and thunder is the accompanying drumbeat, as she learns epiphany through language:
‘I came back from the page’s blank stare.
I was brought back to words: moon,
falling. I was right I was right all along.’
And that drumbeat, that rhythm, is repeated with the ironic power of a tide, in the rhetorically literal ‘Catastrophic devastation; damage complete’, whose hypnotic mantra accretes to a denunciation, a massive negation, of water’s propensity to mentally corrode, sometimes only by suggestion:
‘Enough of the waiting. Enough of the checking.
Enough of waking up each night to listen
to rain, the rhythm of rain on the roof.’
It is significant that Clare Shaw counts climbing and wild swimming amongst her interests, almost as if her life were mirroring her art, or vice versa. Total immersion in the coldest, most unforgiving waters, must be an emollient to the destruction that flooding and disharmony can reek domestically, giving up a sense, perhaps, of resilience to the darker waters of poems like ‘Divorce’. Here, a broad leap of the imagination yields the landscape of a public information film, served in a series of claustrophobic triplets offering instructions on surviving a car sinking into flood water, with the further clear subtext indicated by the title.
Poems which are literally ‘immersive’ perform a kind of baptism. The sense of objective transcendence that Philip Larkin finds in his poem, ‘Water’ – ‘many-angled light congregating endlessly’ – is made crystalline and personal in the intensity of Shaw’s focus. In the ambiguity of the poem ‘Water as Religion’, a suggestion of spirituality draws an earlier incarnation of the narrator’s self towards the womb-like element, the protectorate, which was once her natural domicile: ‘Born into it. From the outset, it was the element you swam in.’
And ultimately, there is redemption in acceptance. Towards the end of Clare Shaw’s honest, moving and profoundly empathic book, she draws a line in the silt. The litany of loss and destruction in the fine poem, ‘Flood as Redemption’, confirms the consolation of a burden shared, and compels the cleansing of bitter experience through words:
‘In knowing it will come again
and in singing it.
Writing it down.’
Flood is published by Bloodaxe Books.
Learning to Swim: Flood by Clare Shaw, 7th July 2018, 19:29 PM