About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2007. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2007 was Alan Spence.
I love the playfulness of this – part of a sequence called Notes in the Margin. Like some of the early concrete / visual poems of Edwin Morgan or Ian Hamilton Finlay, it’s a delight to the eye and the ear . That simple device of drawing the (marginal) line opens up the field of the page, allowing the notes on the left to play off the text on the right, to wonderful contrapuntal effect. I particularly like the last exchange: muddy waters (Muddy Waters!) on the night ebb blues. Made me smile!
‘Night River’ is part of a set of poems or images under the title Notes in the Margin. It should be thought of as a visual image rather than as a poem; it is impossible to ‘read out loud’.
Childhood experiences, seafarers and the impact of the sea and river on their land margins are recurring themes in a large part of my creative work as a visual artist. My paintings, constructions and other activities have generally contained words as vital components and the title of the work often has been part of, or of equal importance to, the work as a whole.
‘Night River’ asks to be contemplated rather than read. The ‘reader’ has to contribute as well as receive. Opening out the originator’s condensed thoughts could be seen as a creative act engaged in by the interpreter, calling on his or her own experiences and thoughts; a participation as well as a reception. In theory, this should lead to endless possibilities. Poetry in fact?
Being asked to comment on the origins of ‘Night River’ could easily put me in the position of being an unreliable witness. The double or multiple meanings of the words and their disposition, together with the arrangement of the spaces, is of great importance. There are, to my surprise, strong musical, jazz and blues connotations. Jazz and blues hold no particular interest or passion for me, and my knowledge of this subject is extremely limited, but even so, perhaps ‘I know the feeling’. I hope there is colour and sound in there somewhere. ‘Beyond the flats’ – is that an urban place of adventure, estuary mud, or the flats and sharps so relevant to the scratchings of the musical stave? I hope the words and spaces conjure up other musings.
Only the three words ‘turns to port’ can I positively source. 1943, a drab riverside town school corridor, bricked-up to counter the effects of bomb blast, and a line of equally drab children filing past the headmaster. A boy pounced on by Authority.
‘What did that tug just say?’
We were deaf to the incessant sounds of the river.
A blank look.
‘You are lucky enough to be living on the busiest stretch of waterway in the world. ‘I am turning to port.’
‘I am turning to port.’ That’s what it said.’
The boy launched back into the stream with a parting cuff to the ear. As an aid to furthering my developing sense of keeping out of trouble I vowed then to be a more attentive observer. It’s enough to make you turn to port.