“On the Saltmarsh” by Ruth Valentine

[Poetry Café, 25th January]

Paul and I stumbled into the Poetry Café and caught the second half of Ruth Valentine’s reading from On The Saltmarsh, bumping into Paul’s sister-in-law as we did so.

The main reason I guess for hearing poetry live is the greater frequency of “ooooh” moments – when the combination of words and inflection make your tummy go; and there were loads on this particular night.

Ruth’s poems are largely about the really unpleasant sides of current affairs: refugees, asylum-seeking, rendition, torture, war, bombs, and she addresses these issues from personal experience, as well as using the traditional poets’ toolkit of myth and objective correlative.

The book’s first sequence, which she read in full, is on the Saltmarsh itself, both the actual locus of illegal immigration and the symbol of the mental desolation this involves. She begins with an incredibly beautiful self-referential tiny verse comparing the poet’s lack of words with the torrents of meaning pouring from the birds on the marsh, the incoming tide and the network of its channels, like a Chinese ideogram. The subsequent poems in this sequence focus on children lying on their backs in the marsh, at once both refugees and distant memories of childhood for mothers in conventional adult suburban lives – the mother “looking up” from the sink as she remembered childhood play was one of the evening’s first “oooh” moments.

Ruth then moved on to poems from the book’s central sequence bombings and rendition, the “war on terror”: delicate evocations of car bombs in Iraq, descriptions of defiant poetry readings outside bombed-out bookshops, a family returning to their house after it had been used as a torture centre, unable to clear the dark hand marks off the walls, all poignant through her lightness of touch. Lots more “oooh”s.

Later poems address Iraq through the country’s own Sumerian myth; these poems are more obscure, their meaning not always clear to me. And one of the last in the book returns to her earlier theme of migration and coastlines – a conceit on the Morecambe Bay cockle-pickers. Here, as in her first poem, the tide comes in, but in this poem it starts in Antarctica, and moves, like Hardy’s Titanic, to its rendezvous with the Chinese immigrant workers on the Lancashire sands. I’m not sure how well this works: it’s a little contrived, but perhaps I need to read it a few more times.

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