…no one could tell where the land ended and the sea began…
Waterlog: Journeys Around an Exhibition contains essays, artwork, and poetry inspired by W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Some of the poems originated in the Waterlog exhibition, components of larger artworks, while several poems appear only in this accompanying monograph.
Marcus Coates is a performance artist whose work often deals with the animal world. His piece in Waterlog includes a poem of eleven stanzas called Britain’s Bitterns Circa 1997 Population 11 Breeding Males. Hollis had his original poem translated into a Norfolk dialect before turning it into a song (both versions are included in the book.). As Brian Dillon’s introductory essay Airlocked indicates, visitors to the exhibition heard a recording of Coates singing “a song that seemed to have been carried on the air from the past, with a warning for the future.” A vitrine in the exhibition hall displayed eleven bittern specimens from the natural history collection of Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery.
We were born a’fore tha wind
We taught tha reed ter sway
In all tha fen Oi need no friend
Oi ‘ll hev moi loves ter lay
Sebald spends most of pages 154-160 in The Rings of Saturn describing how Dunwich, an important port during the Middle Ages, now lies “below the sea, beneath alluvial sand and gravel.”
One cannot say how great was the sense of security which the people of Dunwich derived from the building of [their] fortifications. All we know for certain is that they ultimately proved inadequate. On New Years Eve 1285, a storm tide devastated the lower town and the portside so terribly that for months afterward no one could tell where the land ended and the sea began.
The Sunken Bell, a project by poet and artist Alec Finlay, metaphorically offers up life buoys to the sunken residents of Dunwich in the form of circular poems painted on directly on the buoys. Waterlog also includes what is – for Finlay, at least – a considerably longer poem of four stanzas – or sixteen lines. Also called The Sunken Bell, it imagines the churches of Dunwich:
St Bartholomew’s, St John’s, St Martin’s, St Michael’s,
all sunk; they say you can hear their bells toll
in the tide. Let’s cast a new bell from molten flame,
sink it deep, before the sea covers the land.
George Szirtes’ 1999 poem Backwaters: Norfolk Fields (for W.G. Sebald) is reprinted from his book An English Apocalypse (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2001).Its twelve rhymed stanzas describe natural scenes of melancholy beauty and a city that is both a “gerontopolis” of the elderly and, now, somewhat inexplicably, a haven for immigrants (“Surely you/ don’t think this is America …?”)
Think back of the back of beyond “beyond. End
of a line.The sheer ravishing beauty
of it as it runs into the cold swell
of the North Sea, impossible to comprehend.
The harsh home truisms of geometry
that flatten to a simple parallel.
Like all of Szirtes’ poetry, Backwaters is densely imagistic and rich with themes that weave in and out. It’s a complex, multi-voiced piece that I have enjoyed re-reading many times.
Matthew Hollis’ poem East is (like Szirte’s poem, it was only included in the monograph) echoes Sebald’s themes of the impermanence of the world. Like Sebald, Hollis uses a vocabulary that can verge on the extinct, as can be seen in this extract:
In time, we may refound,
and tell ourselves
we build to build it better. But to walk the strandline,
littered with cuttlebone and uprooted wrack,
is to recognize how little lies within our gift;
how everything else
is in struggle:
the sand sedge clutching for footholds and threads,
the sanderling robbing the tide,
the gabions and groynes shouldering a surge
that cannot begin to be held.
Waterlog (London: Film & Video Umbrella, 2007).