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Tom Chivers: from drainage to Dark Islands

Tom Chivers: from drainage to Dark Islands

I

Words around the grate

When Nine Arches Press published Tom Chivers’s The Terrors in March 2009 the blurb on the back was written by Iain Sinclair:

Dark London history, dredged and interrogated, spits and fizzes with corrosive wit. Language-receipts sustain the necessary illusion. IT MATTERS. It matters: the weight and pace of delivery, the balance of breath. Tom Chivers understands the risks he risks, the play in a taught rope. “I’ll ghost-write, if you ask.”

The poet addressed the reader at the opening of this startlingly powerful reconstruction of pages that owe much to The Newgate Calendar:

What follows is a sequence of imagined emails sent from the author to inmates at London’s Newgate Prison incarcerated between roughly 1700 and 1760. All mistakes, typos and anachronisms are deliberate.

An interest in how the past threads its way through our present was evident after Tom Chivers went up to St. Anne’s College, Oxford, to read English in 2001 and founded a magazine of contemporary writing, Keystone. The first issue of this little magazine contained work by Ric Caddel, the co-Director of the Basil Bunting Poetry Centre, David Caddy, whose influence on the work of Tom Chivers was immense, Lucy Newlyn, winner of the 2001 British Academy’s Crawshay Prize for her work on ‘Reading, Writing, and Romanticism: The Anxiety of Reception’ and Bernard O’Donoghue, teacher of Medieval English at Corpus Christi College whose collection of poems, Here Nor There, was a Poetry Book Society choice. The long poem which Chivers wrote himself for this first issue was titled ‘Effra’ after the lost river of South London which had two branches in the Norwood area, flowed under Half Moon Lane in Herne Hill towards Coldharbour Lane, Brixton before ending in the Thames near Vauxhall Bridge. It has been suggested that one possible derivation for the name of the river is from the Celtic word for ‘torrent’ and John Ruskin, who grew up in Herne Hill, referred to it in his autobiographical writing Praeterita:

Our house was the northernmost of a group which stand accurately on the top or dome of the hill, where the ground is for a small space level, as the snows are, (I understand,) on the dome of Mont Blanc; presently falling, however, in what may be, in the London clay formation, considered a precipitous slope, to our valley of Chamouni (or of Dulwich) on the east; and with a softer descent into Cold Harbour-lane on the west: on the south, no less beautifully declining to the dale of the Effra (doubtless shortened from Effrena, signifying the “Unbridled” river; recently, I regret to say, bricked over for the convenience of Mr. Biffin, chemist, and others)…

Ruskin also suggested that his first sketch revealing any artistic merit, done when he was thirteen in 1832, was at the foot of Herne Hill (where the Half Moon Tavern is now), showing a bridge over the Effra. He also suggested that the stretch of the river towards Dulwich was ‘a tadpole haunted ditch’ and the language here finds echoes in Graham Swift’s novel Waterland and Chivers’s own poetry:

Under tarmac, Effra
swills in drains,
only witness
to every crime,
and one eye to the Thames.

Let us forget
the river: block him up,
his seasons and his rages.
Let’s shout him out
And seal him up
Beneath the Railton Road.

Effra! Effra!
calling at night.

The river bore strange testimony and in the nineteenth-century a coffin was discovered floating in the Thames having sailed from West Norwood Cemetery although the grave itself was undisturbed. It was hinted that the grave had been dug too close to the course of the Effra which runs beneath the cemetery, and that the coffin had subsided into the river, flowing underneath south London before reaching the Thames at Vauxhall.
Tom Chivers combines a passionate interest in Medieval literature with a fascination for what lies buried below a surface. In 2013 he was commissioned for Humber Mouth Literature Festival to write Flood Drain, published by Annexe Press in the following year. The author’s note at the opening of the chapbook gives an intriguing picture of the poet’s awareness of the connections between the past and the present:

In the opening of the great medieval dream vision Piers Plowman, the narrator lies down ‘on a brood bank by a bourne syde’ and is sent to sleep by the sound of the stream which, as he says ‘sweyed so murye’. The poem registers a universal truth, that there is something mesmeric about running water, but it also prefigures the Jungian association of rivers with dreaming and the unconscious. The river, of course, can also stand for death or, as Styx, the underworld. In another medieval poem, Pearl, an unfordable river separates the dreamer from the ghost of his daughter and the promise of heavenly paradise.

The poet tells us that his poem ‘meditates on the dual themes of dreaming and drainage, inspired by a two-day drift down the river Hull’:

The city, recently announced as Britain’s Capital of Culture for 2017, is properly called Kingston-upon-Hull; but such is the ubiquity of the shortened name Hull that the river itself has got somewhat lost. Perhaps this is not so surprising; after all, the city faces out into the vast grey estuary of a much larger river, the Humber, leaving its eponymous stream to snake through the industrial landscape of wrecking yards and ruined docks undisturbed and unrecognised.

Just as in the early poem ‘Effra’ the derivation of the name is important. Whereas the lost river of south London may have taken its name from the Celtic word for ‘torrent’ or even, given the epigraph to the poem (‘Sous les pavés, la plage! Paris, 1968), the French ‘effroi’, the name for Hull has 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 the Sea.

An interest in the world of medieval dream-poetry may well have merged with Chivers’s interest in contemporary poetry: the Gawain-poet’s Pearl is linked of course with Barry MacSweeney’s sequence of poems about which he talked on Radio 4 in 2009.
The movement of rivers to the sea lurks behind James Joyce’s injunction in Ulysses, ‘Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past’ and drains filter out those relics which lie stranded on the shores of a grating:

flat world in which everything slips
fix a chain & a windlass at the mouth of the new cut
disgorging of pipes / tubing / culverts & drains
into Sayer’s Creek
disgorge into estuary
deep slug of Humber
pours the gravy of Hull
in a sound like a sawmill
in a sound like vomiting
in a sound like the howling
of the Fever Hospital

Green City
City of Tomorrow

what is old /
what is new

(Flood Drain)

In his collection of short case-histories, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks wrote that ‘We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative—whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives, a ‘narrative’, and that this narrative is us, our identities […] for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative…’ With these thoughts in mind it is possible to understand why the History teacher, Tom Crick, in Waterland talks of the Grand Narrative as a ‘filler of vacuums’ and the ‘dispeller of fears of the dark’; the ‘dark’ is the absence of a narrative, either on an individual or a collective level. The dark is a terrible amnesia or a fragmented mass of information, unbounded by the comforting coherence of memory, that inner narrative ‘whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. As teachers / adults we tell stories to children and acknowledge that, as Crick informs his class of children in a Greenwich school, reality is a vacuum; defying the amnesia and chaos of the universe we construct narratives, tell stories, tales, look at the debris collected by the bars of the drains, convert detritus to words and, as the phenomenological world dries out, we create islands, even dark ones.

Ian Brinton 14th June 2015

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