Issue 31: Sarah-Clare Conlon & Robert Sheppard
Someone, in a house somewhere, had thrown
all the old suitcases onto the landing. One
leather bag, bulging with what looked liked limbs
under the rough flesh of its flanks, a monster
struggling to get born, swelled taut until its zip burst
and out gushed water, which then flowed down the stairs
and flowed on and on, clear but fierce, forever.
I realised then that this was the source of the river.
Gently down the stream, a dream:
a rill. Perfect, the bright blue lighting
the sleepscape gloom; sparkling water lighting
up your face as you lean over to catch your
breath, snatch a glimpse of a shadow reflected.
Four walls contain you and this rill – a room,
its drapes yanked to against the night garden.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. Rill, rill, rill.
It didn’t take long for this river – its banks grass
pathways, its flow shouldering those ox-bow lakes
of our schooldays – to become song. I hear Paul
Robeson singing ‘Ol’ Man River’ but this is a dream;
it flows into his ‘No More Auction Block’ which blends
along the flow of history into ‘We Shall Overcome’. It
pours past TS Eliot jettisoning the Mississippi’s quote
‘cargo’ unquote of quote ‘human veins’ unquote. Why?
Here was I, trying to buy a silk scarf to protect against
these elements, but that lake view was cliché, manmade,
and my friend’s leg snagged in an upcycled bear trap, blood
staining powder-coated steel, so the moment was gone.
I move on, take a tour of the river’s flood defences, sheer drops
left and right like city ramparts, breached. Waves slipslop
in the water meadows, spent teasels lose their grip,
old nuts sweet and horse stand, beached, up to their knees.
They wouldn’t let us cross the bridge, the river up
to the apex of its arches, the torrent gushing,
carrying its ‘cargo’ of wine bottles, garden furniture,
smashed debris, astonished fish strangled in weed.
We stood and watched the eddies swirling, like eyes
of Jupiter on a viscous vicious surface, its vertiginous
depth drawing the mind into impossible promises.
The Vltava: Prague: 2002: Astronomical Clock stopped.
Stop all the clocks, silence the pianos, sling the hook,
clamber over the side, shimmy down the chain and
slip into the water. Let’s wade, let’s wander, through sikes
and sandbanks, let’s saunter as our thoughts turn estuarine,
let’s meander across marshes and mudflats and margins,
drag our feet, imprint a pattern, create a ripple effect.
Let’s spy the sea then sneak back on ourselves, loop the loop
– as if that open mouth, suddenly, is too much to face head on.
Riverine thoughts: this is where they knew. For all their
talk of Malthus and Christ, they knew. Only the broad
shallow ships were for the ‘African Trade.’ Riparian
observation: that seal sighted in the choppy estuary
bobs its dark head, another ‘cargo’. It plummets: but
we don’t see it again. Cormorants play this trick too,
as we point where we think the river ends and the sea begins.
Open mouth: an ocarina for the breath of the ocean.
See the brown eddy as we lock out at Brunswick?
The man in skins trudge from the Port to Oglet Shore?
Spy Dungeon Lane saltworks, wartime Dragon’s Teeth?
Victorian pot sherds, Vulcanite stoppers, Bristol blue glass?
Mudlarkers, beachcombers: scrub, scrape, scour a channel
for our long keel to sleek that stretch between cityscape and peninsula
– island with its own archipelago of birds and birders. Let’s lark,
let’s comb, let’s peer through that murk when the sky meets the sea.
The sky never meets the sea, not with Hilbre Island
floating in sand and air – sandy air, airy sand – and its mirage
of incoming water that blinds us to the spot. Let’s now
head back towards the lighthouse, while sand is still stable,
while thought is still fixed on homing. The long tide’s cargo
cult has made a god of an oil drum with seaweed hairdo.
The dripping suitcase is going nowhere until the next tide.
Let’s head back, keeping watch over our rolling shoulders.
Hilbre Isle, Middle Eye, Little Eye, what do you spy?
Lanterns and their keepers, rigs and their riggers,
wind farms and windy millers, black shags on belled buoys,
on buildings, a hundred sea-slimed metal men guarding rubble.
We’re in international waters now – Babel, babble, bubble.
Speak to me in the language of lights and shapes, baubles
of shooting stars, bright blue, right angles of red crested cranes,
pyramids of yellow flares, of green nuns. All life is here.
Sarah-Clare Conlon has published a prose collection, Marine Drive, with Broken Sleep Books and three poetry pamphlets: cache-cache (a Poetry Book Society Winter 2022 Selection) with Contraband Books, Using Language with Invisible Hand Press and Lune with Red Ceilings Press (a Poetry Society Winter 2023 Selection). She was inaugural Writer-in-Residence at Manchester’s Victoria Baths 2019-21 and Apprentice Poet in Residence for Ilkley Literature Festival 2022.
Robert Sheppard is a poet-critic based in Liverpool, and Emeritus Professor of Poetry and Poetics at Edge Hill University. He has published numerous books of poetry available from Salt, Shearsman, Knives, Forks and Spoons, Veer and Aquifer, as well as criticism from Liverpool University Press, Northcote House and Palgrave. Poetry and prose also appears in pamphlet form and regularly in magazines.
Copyright © 2023 by Sarah-Clare Conlon and Robert Sheppard, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author