(Annexe Press www.annexemagazine.com)
In The Terrors (Nine Arches Press 2009) Tom Chivers tried to map for us the city and how it all connected: ‘Sodden hooks north; strip developments; turnpikes; vowels that stretch and bend with the roadway.’ Now he has published Flood Drain, commissioned for last year’s Humber Mouth Literature Festival. When Philip Larkin was working on early drafts of his poem about Hull, ‘Here’, he complained that it was caught, trapped, as a ‘pointless shapeless thing about Hull’. In October 1961, having completed the poem that was to stand as the opening to The Whitsun Weddings, Larkin wrote that he meant it as a celebration of Hull: ‘It’s a fascinating area, not quite like anywhere else’.
Tom Chivers has written a fascinating poem that could stand most interestingly alongside Larkin’s in terms of the shifts and changes that have taken place in English poetry over the past half-century. Flood Drain is much closer to the world of Charles Olson and the refracted language of R.F. Langley’s ‘Matthew Glover’ than it is to Larkin’s. What it shares with Larkin’s world is that fascination with the merging of history and industrialism that haunts that North-East coastline and the history which interests Chivers is more akin perhaps to that which interested Graham Swift in his writing of Waterland: the tone of voice in the opening author’s note is a register that I suspect Swift would recognise:
Hull is also a lost word. A name with no definitive etymology. Some claim it as Celtic for ‘deep river’ or Saxon for ‘muddy river’, but the most alluring explanation was offered by Nathan Bailey in his 1721 An Universal Etymological English Dictionary: HULL…of hulen, Lower Saxon heulen, Teutonic, to howl, from the Noise the River makes, when it meets with the sea.
Flood Drain swirls around a walk Chivers made in an attempt to ‘trigger an altered state of conscciousness’ and with that visionary sense he takes as his model Langland’s Malvern dream of Piers Plowman in the opening of which the poet lies down ‘under a brod banke by a bourne syde’ before drifting into a sleep charmed by the sound of the stream’s waters. Very different from the ambitious Medieval allegorical world of Langland’s dream poem this witty and intelligent take on industrial drainage in the twenty-first century has no qualms about playing with sounds and inferences
I had a drain /
I had a flood drain
in a somer seson
the day after St Jude’s day
The reference to St. Jude, the Patron Saint of Lost Causes, has a bleak appropriateness as Chivers conducts us through a ‘flat world in which everything slips’. And there again the echo of Waterland can be heard as the past emerges from a silted land:
“See all this waste up here? It’s called slag.
It gets wet & it gets all muddy almost like
a liquid & that’s when it makes a landslip.”
Within and across this landscape which is brought to life for us in this splendid new poem by Tom Chivers what we hang on to is our only shield:
Hull into Humber.
Humber into sea.
This we know.
This much we know.
Ian Brinton 14th April 2014