Past the locked garden gate / it came carrying leaves.
We first learnt about death / from its rough drag and hum:
it spread like thick spilt ink / leaking into our games
and scoring through our maps / at Thames, Severn, Arun.
It might have been a chink / in the brittle landscape,
a typographic slip / turning us upside-down
so that we saw ourselves / in the shimmering people
trapped in the reflection / of a tiny drowning town.
From a window we’d watch / men draw fish from its curves
and children juggle nets / through its scales and ridges;
we bent like roots to it / and grew old while it drove
on to carve up cities / into blocks and bridges.
We first learnt about God / from its scattering of light:
from watching its shallows / where at the edge of day
distant figures gathered / to stand knee-deep, waiting
for it to wash their bones / clean, clean as a blank page.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2008. 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 editors in 2008 were Rosemary Goring and Alan Taylor.
Meekings uses words with such sensual effect they make your skin shiver. The natural world is his sourcebook, allowing him to play with ideas of reality and beyond, as well as to meditate on the beauty of wildlife and the elements. River is one of his poems where water plays a leading role, and he uses the image of a life lived by a river as a potent way of evoking permanence and strength (nature), and vulnerability (humans), as with the lines “it spread like thick spilt ink / leaking into our games and scoring through our maps”. Meekings’ river is both bountiful and dangerous, the place where one learns about death and about God. In his telling it is a far more powerful – and fascinating – agent than humankind.
Rivers dissect countries. They draw up borders and split places in two. They are dictators who rarely permit attempts to curtail their power. As rivers split the world, so the lines in the poem are broken in two; the break also represents the balance between the world and its reflection.
The ‘we’ in this poem refers to my brothers and I. River is principally an attempt to look again at rivers as I had done as a child. Look at a river through a child’s eyes and the water become alchemic—powerful, totemic and capable of the darkest magic tricks. Also, as people come to focus more on the effect of people on the landscape, it proves interesting to remember the effects of a landscape on the people who grow up there.
The Bestiary is a book about the rich strangeness of the bits of the world we take for granted. Rivers are incomprehensible beasts, with their own whims and appetites. Rivers seemed like the perfect metaphor for the persistent tug-of-war between our desire for change and our longing for constancy, though they are never open to compromise.