Think about the immense solidity of Cambridge: its sandstone, its institutional impenetrability, the coldness of the squares. Then think about the river Cam, so obviously not solid, and it seems easy to draw a line between the two. But the Cam does wend its way out from the Backs and through the suburbs of Cambridge, past pubs on stretches of empty road and building sites sprouting from fields. Part of this wending takes it under a bridge on which is scrawled one line of impudence in blue spray paint. The line reads ‘Sunshine Posho’, and somewhere between the words on the bridge and their reflection in the river, there’s a dissolution taking place that troubles both the solidity of Cambridge and the perceived softness—the harmlessness—of the river.
A few mornings a week, I row under this bridge. The graffiti always strikes me as both thrilling and discomforting. Kitted out in several layers of stash, pantomiming slickness past the riverside apartments as the sun peeks over the horizon, being called out for our privilege with a strange, startling fondness is exciting. Rowing under ‘Sunshine Posho’ makes me wonder what words have to do to dissolve the stodgy, institutional comfort that Cambridge so often stands for, and how this work might be particularly inflected when words, as they do here, hit the water.
American poet and academic Maggie Nelson undertakes an important investigation into this phenomenon: the way words and water make something new from discarded material in urban environments. In Something Bright, Then Holes (2007) Nelson meanders down Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal on a daily (or, often, nightly) trip to witness the shifting state of her surroundings. Decay is beautiful here, and Nelson’s tenderness as she turns toward the debris of the city—as to the debris of her own painfully crumbling relationship, the unravelling of which she also reflects upon in the collection—redeems scenes of urban griminess as somehow more beautiful for the loss that they disclose. In ‘Green,’ Nelson imagines the green of the moss on a dirty waterway as a cipher for the beauty of a damaging relationship:
I’d be a shitty boyfriend, you said, as if
making a promise. I said, It’s not the content
I’m in love with, it’s the form. And that
was tenderness. All last year
I planned to write a book about
the colour blue. Now I’m suddenly surrounded
by green, green gagging me
pleasurably, green holding onto my hips…
I don’t think that putting shittiness aside is the point. Decay is interesting, for Nelson, because it can be aesthetically compelling and also represent a troubling environmental or social (and, accordingly, moral) process at the same time. Gagging on green, as we do here when we try to negotiate all the letters clogging the lines, can be very exciting. Nelson likes to see that things are wrong, and to celebrate that recognition by making something beautiful from a physical and ethical decay that would otherwise be cause for despair. Elsewhere, the canal is resplendent in its toxic way. There are ‘pale blue and pink factories / exhaling through their vents’ in this place where onlookers can watch ‘the pigeons / wheel above the cement crusher’s / mean lavender dust.’ Mean, and also lavender.
The beauty of the canal is often the beauty of seeing things twice: the physical object, and then again, reflected by the water, or carried downstream by it. In ‘What is it?’ Nelson watches
The blue wrapper of an Almond Joy;
the hourglass of a Maxi.
Some of the garbage sinks, inexplicably
but most of it just floats by
A bag of Lay’s, another Maxi…
Even the lines come in pairs here, the couplets reflecting images and sounding off of each other. This is a strategy common to Nelson’s style when she’s writing about water and the way it reconfigures its surroundings, reflecting things into new versions of themselves.
Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement helps us think about the ways that the imagery of water is used to register changes in both geographical and social landscapes. For Ghosh, as for Nelson, recognition is seeing twice: it’s the bringing to light of latent knowledge about ourselves, each other, and our environment when we look again at something that we thought was familiar. It’s different from seeing something for the first time, insofar as it brings us back toward something we had known or been, and forgotten. For Ghosh, recognition in the real world is often brought about by the action of water, and this action is frequently destructive, pulling things apart to reveal others. Ghosh even finds self-recognition in the water: ‘When I look into my past the river seems to meet my eyes, staring back, as if to ask, Do you recognise me, wherever you are?’ Here, Ghosh hints at the work that Nelson is doing both with water, and with the form of her poetry: finding in the environmental and social breakdown of urban waterways the very materials with which to reimagine the landscape. Nelson registers the degradation of her city, but she doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Indeed, she doesn’t even throw the bathwater out, but rather uses it as the means through which we might recognise, like Ghosh does, new ways of organising space and social structures using the materials the old, crumbling ones were made out of.
The Australian poet Jill Jones, like Nelson, recognises the potential for regeneration in crumbling cities. Both water and poetic language participate in this delivery of destruction and revelation in Jones’s Viva the Real (2018). Crossing continents to suburban Adelaide (though some of it rings more like Marrickville to me), Jones’s watery images make strange and fantastic things from the mundane. The everyday is enchanted in ‘Small Things,’ where ‘the smallest things give form to light / beaten with wings, water-thrashed sky.’ There is a sense of frustration here, as water crashes through the suburban scene, tearing it all up. In the end, Jones commands us: ‘Instead of a dove-grey rapture / wake up and arrange your resistance.’ Arranging debris is precisely what Jones undertakes to do in the following poem, ‘Alarms,’ with its anti-similes:
Miracles are not like tempests.
Furlongs are not like hedgerows
though they come close.
Refrigerators are not like alarms
although propositions are tempting.
‘Coming close’ falls short of what words do here. We say a miracle isn’t like a tempest, but of course, through this treatment in language, miracles do become like tempests. The two are alike, that is, precisely insofar as they perform the same action as poetic language does: bringing together the random debris of the world into reformulated realities.
Jones’s compatriot Kate Lilley turns her transformative gaze upon Sydney in her most recent collection, Tilt (2018). In Lilley’s Sydney, recognition of the city’s historical past dredges up senses of both griminess and glitz. Her sensibility echoes Nelson’s, insisting that sunshine carries on over the rudeness of its content. Tilt writes Sydney as less explicitly a watery landscape, but I think there’s something to be made of the glittering of Lilley’s images—the way her social and personal landscapes radiate out stunningly in all directions at once, like light off wavelets in the city’s quay. Take the collection’s titular poem, ‘Tilt,’ for example, where
Fonzies Fantasyland at 31 Oxford St
(now a disappointing IGA)
opened in 79 next door to Patches
a few months after the Ghost Train fire
at Luna Park killed seven.
Vernacular and verisimilitude bounce around the poem’s historical landscape, showing us a reflected view of Sydney from many angles at once. Hints of disorder ripple through behind the mention of the ‘Ghost Train fire at Luna Park,’ as a sense of deflation accompanies the fall of 31 Oxford St from a Fantasyland to an IGA.
Themes of abuse of power and sexual violence also permeate Lilley’s recollections throughout the book. This is a particularly sharp inflection on the theme, carried across all three poets, as well as Ghosh, of the city as a locus of destruction. Here, again, water helps figure this interpersonal and ethical crumbling, as Lilley recounts a scene of sexual assault taking place in a shower at a house party:
Lattice of pain
this is what I’ve been raised for
In the moment of inundation
do nothing say nothing
go home and show my sister
Again, these references to social, and indeed moral, decay are most often rendered with a sparkling attitude that seems to use its overemphatic beauty as a way of stylistically flipping the bird at the modes of destruction they disclose. At Fonzies,
I was reprimanded for reading
And stayed too long on my break upstairs at Patches
watching the drag show and drinking Barcardi.
I wore the wrong stockings and didn’t care:
the dark bit at the top showed below my shorts.
The junior manager I’d reported for sexual harassment
lectured me on ‘pride in appearance’.
The handwriting was on the wall and I was ready to go.
The writing on the wall is resplendent here, though disgusting when we think about what it means. Here, Lilley’s tone reminds me of Nelson, who writes about being asked to answer a riddle by the canal, and having none of it: ‘It walks like a parrot, is scrawny, / fishes, and has dark legs. What is it? // How the hell should I know? / I’m living a lie.’
What these three poets do, like the anonymous author of ‘Sunshine Posho,’ and like the water that figures in the poems and in the actual river Cam, is map new ways of being out of old material, whether it’s the physical debris of a city washing down an old waterway, the stage-props of suburbia, social and personal histories, or the material of language itself. But what, precisely, is this new way of being? What is drawn by way of conclusion? Sometimes endings are discussed by these poets, but they never seem quite concrete. Take Nelson’s vision, looking ‘Past the yellow diamond that reads DEAD END / then farther down, another: END’. Jones, too, sees endings as mostly like beginnings, but heavier with knowledge. In the flimsy shallows of a shopping complex, Jones looks around:
And exit signs stretch out like
a system, a straight-seeming system
that is soon a dead end, a locked door
in the shape of wings but faded.
There is the promise of something new, something other, here, but this newness is inextricable from the decay of something old and solid. The Cam flows on under ‘Sunshine Posho,’ and we keep rowing under it morning after morning, happily unsettled a little each time. This writing dissolves the comfort of the familiar, and makes the strange or impossible somehow recognisable. It doesn’t instantiate an ending so much as a wending, forward but never directly so, like a river.