I am delighted to welcome Helena Nelson to continue our series on overlooked poets.
Andrew Waterhouse and the Seventh Syllable
Poets come and go. They enter your life with their poems. They get older. They die.
You don’t actively miss them. You move, as they say, on. Besides, you have poems of your own to write.
But sometimes it’s not so easy. You think of certain writers with pain and regret. You go back to their poems and there’s the poet, still inside the lines, circling round and round and looking out at you, like a goldfish behind glass. You want them to explain themselves, but the only explanation they can or will give is right here. Right here in the poems. And you still don’t get it.
Or this is how it is for me with Andrew Waterhouse, who died (it was a suicide) in 2001. I go back to his poems for the answer. I wish I had the poems he didn’t live to write.
But there is a legacy, and it is, I think, indispensable. You read differently, of course, when you know how his life ended. But I feared for him even when I read his first book, the one that won the Forward Prize for First Collection, In. There’s a small poem in there called ‘The Forest’. Waterhouse said he didn’t do metaphor, but there is a way in which literal and figurative truths can fuse. Here is the poem and you will know what it’s about:
This is a forest.
Here is a car
in the forest.
That is a person
in the car
in the forest.
This is a quiet forest.
These are the trees that appear in Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, though more ominous. ‘And miles to go before I sleep’, says Frost – but we know he’s tempted by the snow. As is Waterhouse, at the end of ‘A Night at the Plague and Nausea’ (dated Winter 1996, five years before he died), when he says:
Many hours pass. I sway by the door,
listening to the snowfall. The bell sounds
behind me. I smile, free to decide:
a last request or the white fields.
Waterhouse was a good poet. Different. Interesting. And he was getting better. He worked at the art; he was self-critical.
He had many friends. After his death, poems in his memory appeared all over the place. I only met him myself in person once, at a reading in Colpitts, Durham, where I bought his book and got it signed, then read it on the train on the way home. It moved me deeply, and I sent him a letter to say as much and more, and he replied. I wrote to him again later, and this time he didn’t reply.
At some point, he must not have been able to construct an alternative ending (though he has a whole poem titled ‘Alternative Endings’). The car in a quiet forest was always there. At least that’s how I imagine it may have been.
In the work that outlives him, Andrew Waterhouse is not a miserable poet. His poems are shot with irony and gleams of fun. But I suspect his abiding theme was how to find reasons to go on, how to live with a self he didn’t always like, how not to emit darkness. One of the poems in his second (posthumous) collection, is ‘The Darkhouse Keeper’. Like much of his work, it is more than mere metaphor. He inverts the idea of a lighthouse keeper (he liked to go back to front, inside out and backwards in his poems). This keeper doesn’t start his job until it’s light when he goes upstairs to the lantern room, which contains ‘one dark stone’, surrounded by prisms and mirrors and lenses. Then he sets ‘the reflectors slowly turning, // gathering into themselves / a soft, black beam to pulse and shine / across the sea, towards the shore / and there pass over you without fear.’ It is not clear to me to whom the fear belongs: the keeper himself or the person (people?) it passes over. But certainly there is a feeling of meticulous dedication, of rendering the darkness safe.
I believe he was aware of a lived pun in his name – ‘Waterhouse’. He knew what mortal bodies are mostly made of. His first book starts with the river Trent and ends with the ocean. He also published a little pamphlet just before he died, ‘Good News from a Small Island’. It appeared in July 2001 (he would be dead by 20 October that same year) and the final poem here also ends in water. It’s a short lyric, only 15 lines, in which the poet finds a resting butterfly inside the church on Holy Island. He describes her with precision and tenderness. This is how the poem concludes:
and I reach up,
cup her in my hands, walk through the old incense
from transept to porch, to the open door,
release her into this day, her unsteady wings
catching the light again over celandines
and gravestones and on towards the sea.
Celandines and gravestones. On towards the sea. ‘We’ll all be dead soon’ he tells the blonde person behind the bar in ‘A Night at the Plague and Nausea’. Indeed we will. Why would a butterfly fly towards the sea, unless this represents the ultimate home, towards which we all journey?
After Andrew died, I read his poems again, and have read them since many times, especially my favourites. These frequent returns have made them part of my consciousness as I make my own way towards the ultimate destination. But I want to talk about one poem in particular before I’m done.
I read it in Smiths Knoll magazine first, and you can find it there too, in poetrymagazines.org, together with other poems by Andrew, a couple of them uncollected. The poem in question is ‘Speaking About My Cracked Sump’, and it’s a conversation with a therapist, ostensibly about a pool of oil that gathers under the speaker’s car each morning, and his compulsion every day to count precisely seven drips.
I still remember when I first came across the poem. I was arrested by it, loved the end. I didn’t read it again until Michael Mackmin, who had published Andrew’s first book under the Rialto imprint, brought out his posthumous collection: 2nd. And then I re-read it. But it wasn’t quite the same as I remembered. So I compared. With delight, I saw how Andrew had worked on the poem since its first publication, made it stronger and more resonant.
He had changed line-breaks and some of the words so that each line (with one exception, and a life-changing pause) had seven syllables: one for each of the seven drips of oil. It felt like a message from beyond, a confirmation that he was not just any old poet. He was a poet who could change ‘skating child’ to ‘skating baby’, not just because of the seventh syllable but because ‘baby’ is better in every sense: in its delight, in its evocation of the beginning, in its aural bounce and assurance. And so I knew Andrew was still there, still inside the lines.
‘Speaking About My Cracked Sump’ is graceful and prescient. It holds the poet’s two sides in balance: dark and light, life and death, the skating baby and the final drop. It mischievously inverts the idea of oil on troubled waters. This oil calms nothing: it is of him and in him. It is his richly compressed material and his dark inspiration. He tells the therapist what will happen one day, how the oil will spread and make its way through the town (babies and pets will skate over it) towards the sea. It is a remarkable piece of writing that has haunted me now for 15 years, and so I will include all of the final version here. It should be widely known. It is the poem of a lifetime.
Speaking About My Cracked Sump
I tell her about the pool
under my car each morning,
its blackness, the successive
seven drips I must always
count, watching what should be held,
released. She nods. Go on. Go
on. But only if you want
to. Her encouraging smile.
I say that the oil is like
a shadow resting there. I
say that one day it will spread
from beneath my car and flow
down this road. Babies and pets
will skate over it. There may
be confusions. Then the oil
will turn right at the junction,
and swamp the small roundabout,
mount a kerb, soak towards the
edge of our fine promenade,
stop by the railings, listening
to the waves below and drip,
troubling the water. She has
a question for me. Are you
the oil or the water? I pause.
I am the skating baby
and I am the final drop.