There is something primal that draws us to water. We emerge from a sac of it, we learn play in its shallows, we build our dwellings on its edges, we seek and shrink from its sounds and movement throughout our lives. It is this connection that drew me to Undercurrents. I wanted to see how Amanda Bell merges her discoveries of river systems with the personal and historical, and how she expresses this in poetic form.
Undercurrents is a collection of haibun featuring sometimes single and often a series of related haiku, forms that demand exactness and serve the purpose of this collection well. Using a contemporary syllabic count, Bell’s powerful employment of the essential pause with the undercutting shift in these incorporated haiku, makes for arresting poetry. Bell provides wider perspectives through the prose of the haibun which then acts as a springboard into the haiku, or is it, that the reflection of the haibun springs from the revelation of the haiku? It is the integration of the two that is so satisfying. Whether one dips into a haiku here and there, or whether a more linear approach is taken through a systematic reading of the haibun, Undercurrents delivers a poetry and narrative that is rewarding to the senses and illuminating in our understanding of the selected aquatic ecosystems.
The reader’s satisfaction is enhanced by the structure of this book which supports the metaphorical and actual drift of the Irish waterways to which we readers are introduced. The poetry invites us to consider the flow of time, mortality,
cutting this year’s wood for next year’s fires – who will feel its warmth?the wandering of the human heart,
hillwalkers – laughter cushioned in pine needles
the interruptions and the forces over which we have so little sway, and always the way we have sought to control and manage and take benefit from the natural currents of our rivers:
greylag geese graze as the bog road reappears – floating thatch reeds
But there is a thread of lightness in the poetry, a wry slant as in this haiku from 'Gravel Beds', which appropriates the cultural symbol of wedding bands, but bounces from the haibun reflecting on the birthing of the poet’s second daughter:
nesting time – blackbird searching for a mate, gold rings in his eyes
or this from 'Seawards', where Bell shows the inherent power of river systems where she lives; “my neighbourhood is suspended like a hammock over the River Swan, all seventeen kilometres of whose convoluted course culverted and converted into storm drains and sewers” (48). These rivers have been tamed, diverted, built over and yet, water finds its way:
home from work a welcoming committee of floating chairs
Bell prefaces our entry into this book by noting the parallels between rivers, family history and personal recollection. She notes the surprises, and that is exactly what this book reveals. Undercurrents is a book of wonder and intrigue, both in its capturing of these watery landscapes, its respect for the intertwined ecosystem and its delivery of the interrelated human story.
It is reminiscent of the approach taken by Alice Oswald’s early and book length poem, Dart (2002) in which Oswald creates a fictional account of the juncture of the river and the characters who live and work on and beside it. In contrast, Bell uses her own experience, alongside documented and anecdotal accounts of interaction with the waterways, to create this poetry. Such immediacy gives her work authenticity and facilitates a specificity of place that is enhanced by the language choices Bell makes. Most importantly it invites the reader into an instant and direct involvement with the poet and the poetry.
The Australian environmental historian, Erica Nathan, writes of this human connection described from a female perspective, as the great absence in our national environmental history. She highlights the limitations of a gendered history and seeks to amend that. I am less familiar with the documented history of waterways in Ireland but suspect Amanda Bell may be providing a similar redress in Undercurrents. The book’s structure of haibun prose and haiku nestling together is effective in placing the river sites in a broader understanding of environmental history and landscape. Importantly, Bell’s approach furthers the personal connection, both in the interface of human action and environment and of poet to poetry.
The waterways chosen for this collection are those with which the poet has a personal connection, a connection she sometimes overtly shares, but at other times, it is as if we are peeking into her reflections, her noticing. 'Preserved' (28) depicts this shift. Initially she invites us to walk with her around Louch Conn in County Mayo, to feel the footfall of our feet in the bog, the deceptive give of the sphagnum moss:
the walker is faced with heather tufts, drifts of dancing cotton, and tracts of bog which betray themselves only by the shiver extending out from beneath the weight of your tread. Spongy hummocks of red and green Sphagnum moss promise a firm foothold but often deceive …But then the shift occurs as she is telling us of her discovery
Ascending the hill, the terrain becomes drier. Bog gives way to stone, moss to gorse, cotton to thorn. By ear I locate a mountain stream …
For a time, she is absorbed in the solitary action of discovering a waterfall and pool into which she slips, “Crossing the pool my bones ache with cold". The first of the haiku reflects this private reflection:
limbs glowing amber through ferrous water – evening stillness
But the ensuing series of five haiku, through close attention to plant and insect species, brings us back to the heart of the concepts flowing through this collection – wonder and transience:
fraughan seedlings in the moss – their first season
It was an introduction, many years ago, to the lost path of The Farset in Belfast that alerted me to the evolving social history of river systems, so I was particularly drawn to the poetry of 'Flotsam' based around The Poddle (58) described in the haibun as “the best known of Dublin’s hidden rivers”. We are told that during the 1835 flood repairs, Dean Jonathan Swift’s coffin was opened and, “His skull removed for examination by the British association for the advancement of Science … in an effort to determine the cause of the deafness and vertigo suffered by the Dean throughout his life” (58-59):
water courses roaring underground – below hearing
My discomfort in the reported treatment of this man’s corpse is juxtaposed alongside my admiration for the tight, clever haiku that ensued. But worse was to come as I read in the next haibun of the 2011 floods when the waters, not able to flow out to sea, erupted back up through the drains and a “hospice nurse Cecilia de Jesus, unable to force open the door of her apartment against rising water, was drowned” (59). From this haibun, no haiku ensue. Perhaps an opportunity is lost, where the poet might have highlighted the social and historical reality of it being the most vulnerable who are at greatest risk, in this case, the migrant workers who are most exposed to the ferocity of a river system that can never be fully tamed.
Encountering the interface of human behaviour and landscape portrayed in playful colourful imagery is a lovely counter to such frightening depictions of water power or the prosaic elements of water management. In the final haibun, ‘Casting Off’, Bell foregrounds the necessity of boiling water in the Callow Water Scheme and consequent benefits to local retailers. But it is in the image of the family creating a raft “by cramming the space in the middle of a wooden pallet with empty water bottles, and launch(ing) it in the Spaddagh River, a small spawning stream running into the Moy” (67) that gives the poetry its life, in a playful response to challenging aspects of this river environment. The poet uses multi-sensory imagery in the next passage of the haibun with a striking depiction of place encompassing children and cattle, fun and colour, the sound of water and the sting of midges:
It was late August; the air was thick with seeds and midges and the small of cattle. The raft soon ran aground on a muddy bank where livestock came to drink. In their matching floral bathing suits, the girls daubed one another with fresh green dung, and draped riverweed about their heads and shoulders, transforming themselves into naiads. (67)
The environmental irony is presented as a circular argument. The beauty in the joyfully poetic, in the almost classic pastoral scene, ensues from the damaged ecosystem with its undrinkable water. But perhaps Bell is edging in a hopeful note with the portrayal of the life-giving nymphs and a future they will create.
Bell’s final twist occurs in what I found to be one of the most poignant haiku of all, in furthering the notion of impermanence, and, in particular, the fleeting nature of childhood. Having gifted us with the image of the two girls as life-giving water nymphs, she then ends the book with the reminder that we creatures are all readying our young for flight.
scent of meadowsweet – swallows readying themselves for flight
Amanda Bell has provided us with a poetic narrative that is fresh and compelling, so much so, that these places have, for this reader, merged into my own geographic history and lexicon. I suspect that Undercurrents is likely to have some readers trekking along the banks of these watercourses, as if revisiting a river once known in childhood.
The use of a less conventional text format which juxtaposes the freedom of the sparse prose of the haibun with the preciseness of the haiku gives the reader an experience of proximity and sensory discovery. There is nothing didactic about Bell’s poetry. Ecological perspectives of the river systems she explores, flow through to the reader by showing rather than telling. It is as if Bell has incorporated the principles of haiku in the entire text of Undercurrents. She has captured the physical essence of these Irish river systems at a moment in time and offers us flashes of insight.
Amanda Bell, Undercurrents. Uxbridge, UK: Alba Publishing, 2016. ISBN:9781910185483
Nathan, Erica. 2017 “Heard Island is a Place” Nature Writing Prize Shortlisted Essay. The Nature Conservancy of Australia.
Nathan, Erica, 2007 Lost Waters: A History of a Troubled Catchment. Carlton, VIC: Melbourne University Press.
Oswald, Alice. 2002 Dart London: Faber & Faber.