Memory Maps: 'Elementary Estuaries', by Philip Terry

A work-in-progress

On the afternoon of the first of January 2006, I set off under grey skies along the Wivenhoe trail following the banks of the river Colne to where the land turns in upon itself to form Arlesford – once Alder’s Ford – Creek. There was some construction work taking place on the former site of Wivenhoe shipbuilding yards. The building site was encased in a white corporate fence – I thought of the ever expanding 'Centre' in José Saramago’s novel 'The Cave' – emblazoned with signs reading DANGER: CONTAMINATION. There was a light breeze, and as you proceeded along the hazardously muddy track you could hear your squelching footfalls, birds calling, and the odd hoot from a distant train making its way back from Clacton.

I remember too the noise of cars passing on the road, the roar of a jet plane, the muscular beating of the wings of a swan in flight, and the colourful buoys marking the river course, green, red, blue and black. By the time I turned to make my way back, it was almost dark, and looking out over the mudflats you could see the distant silhouettes of wading birds captured against the sunset, perched by the edge of the river’s diminished channel. This was the image that would stick in my mind as I sat down the following morning to write a poem based on the walk, and it was this which formed the backbone of the piece.

This poem was the first of a planned series of fifty, still in progress, to be composed around estuary walks in Essex, ranging from the Thames, Roach and Crouch in the south, to the Blackwater Estuary leading to Maldon, to the inlets and channels in and around Mersea Island – Ray Channel, Sampson’s Creek, Strood Channel – to the Colne and the Stour in the north.

The plan was, and is, to write fifty poems over the year – one a week with two weeks off in the summer – and build up an archive of places, sights, sounds, textures, sensations, people, birds and animals, in a word a 'memory map' of these often haunting, neglected estuarine landscapes, which to this day carry traces of our island’s history, from the site of the Battle of Maldon on the Blackwater, to the ruins of Hadleigh Castle near Southend, broodingly captured by Constable in the 1820s, to the elaborate Shandean earthworks making up the defences of Tilbury Fort on the Thames, near to where Elizabeth I delivered her speech to the nation after the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

Charles II’s Chief Engineer at Tilbury was the French Military Architect Bernard de Gomme. The form I employed for the estuary poems is one created by another Frenchman, Raymond Queneau, a form which has come to be known as the 'elementary morality' after his 1975 volume of the same name. Queneau describes it as follows: 'First come 3 series of 3+1 pairs each consisting of a noun and adjective (or participle), freely including repetitions, rhymes, alliterations, and echoes; next, a kind of interlude of 7 lines, each 1 to 5 syllables long; last, a conclusion of 3+1 pairs of words (noun and adjective or participle), more or less recapitulating several of the 24 words of the first part.'

Supremely visual in its nature, the form has many attractions: its appearance on the page, suggestive of receding flatnesses, seems perfectly adapted to the depiction of estuarine landscapes; and simultaneously, in its mathematical rigour, it functions like a grid or a primitive pinhole camera, able to capture and freeze elements of a place or a landscape as in a time capsule. Then, finally, the form, previously unexplored in English, nevertheless finds its echo in the very roots of English poetry, the kennings of Anglo-Saxon verse.

The following poems, written between January and September 2006, represent the first thirty-three in the series entitled – after Queneau – 'Elementary Estuaries'.

Page One


I


Blue buoy Untampered similie Black buoy
  Grey water  
Still creek White knight Cold stream
  Red rubble  
Grey sky Yellow contamination Blue sheep
  Light breeze  
     
  Birds  
  Silhouetted  
  On the  
  Mudflats  
  Lights  
  On the  
  Colne  
     
Still  buoy Outstretched branches Cold sheep
  Icy pool  



II


Deserted paddock Crunching gravel Distant beach-huts
  Azure sky  
Retreating sheep Anchored vessel Sharpening wind
  Flapping page  
Uncertain seagull Chiaroscuro clouds Withering rosehip
  Flapping crow  
     
  A shadow  
  Points  
  Across  
  Oyster beds  
  A lone steeple  
  Marks  
  The opposite shore  
     
Retreating clouds Crunching sheep Chiaroscuro beach-huts
  Azure sky  



III


Lone redshank Lean sparrowhawk Lone duck
  Vandalised sign  
White horse Green armadillo Startled pheasant
  Dancing teasels  
Burnt-out car Decoy wall Distant rumble
  Vandalised sign  
     
  A dense wall  
  Of white  
  Masts  
  Guards the  
  Marina  
  Pikes of  
  Middle England  
     
Decoy duck Green armadillo Burnt-out pheasant
  Inaccessible sign  



IV


Red Andros Red Charmer Red Camelot
  Red Crusader  
White Siskin White Shadowfax White Avocet
  White Panacea  
Blue Merlin Blue Lucky Dip Blue Vinney
  Blue Haversack  
     
  Brent geese  
  Bleating  
  On the marsh  
  Cows  
  Moored  
  On the  
  Estuary  
     
Percussive masts Pink sail lofts Persistent scraping
  Private members  



V


Exposed wall Isolated thornbush Narrow path
  Secret retreat  
Lone fishing boat Distant light Locked hide
  Black barge  
Holy place Quiet days Restored chapel
  White sail  
     
  Sea meets land  
  River meets sand  
  Sea meets sky  
  River meets marsh  
  Earth meets sand  
  River meets sea  
  Sky meets land  
     
Secret light Quiet path Distant light
  Holy retreat  

 

Page Two


VI


Calling gull Uncertain yapping Calling lapwing
  Dangerous parking  
Corroded hull Eroded track Gnarled trunk
  Distinctive marking  
Elevated nest Shored boat Abandoned bark
  Forlorn barking  
     
  Oak trees  
  Lining  
  The shore  
  Marram grass  
  Stump  
  Anchor  
  Oar  
     
Corroded marking Private shore Exposed roots
  Forlorn parking  



VII


Bright-edged sword Golden-hilted sword Broad sword
  Slender spear  
Shield-wall Hearth-troop Linden-shields
  Life-house  
White sky Grey sky Indifferent sky
  Narrow causeway  
     
  Broken the waters  
  Broken the ground  
  Broken the hearts  
  Broken the spears  
  Broken the pride  
  Broken the shield-wall  
  Broken the verses  
     
Slender causeway Fated men Indifferent sky
  Broken verses  



VIII


Banking jet Talkative cyclists Orange catamaran
  Distant castle  
Sprinting dog Obedient dog Trotting dog
  Distant smog  
Grazing godwit Purple marsh Languorous lapwing
  Distant chimneys  
     
  Beyond the  
  Bright reedcrest  
  Two muddy  
  Redshanks  
  Patrol  
  The muddy  
  Banks  
     
Sprinting dog Purple lapwing Distant dog
  Talkative birdwatchers  



IX


Airborne engine Still water Unpredicted wind-chill
  Linear shadow  
Airborne swans Calling swans Creaking swans
  Squeaking gate  
Turbulent waters Whistling wind Dispersing foam
  Anchored dome  
     
  Marked out with buoys  
  Illuminated by sunlight  
  The watery  
  Runway of  
  Two swans  
  Coming in  
  To land  
     
Enduring love Anchored foam Kissing gate
  Mobile home  



X


Winding track Windy track Wintery track
  Windswept gorse  
Shaven ditch Electric fencing Blighted crop
  Spent cartridge  
Abandoned vessel Makeshift raft Motionless barge
  Gutted pillbox  
     
  A broken-winged  
  Seagull  
  Slips into a  
  Ditch for safety  
  Now it is  
  Really  
  Stuck  
     
Forlorn calling Distant steeple Lone magpie
  Spent cartridge  

 

Page Three


XI


Abandoned wheel Yellow effluent Abandoned trolley
  Purple tree  
Red pipe Explosive flight Mustard lichen
  Idle cormorant  
Red slagheap Pink slagheap Sandy slagheap
  Colourful sign  
     
  Two trees  
  Struck by  
  Lightening  
  Branches raised  
  In supplication  
  The prayer  
  Before the blast  
     
Pastoral image Steel fence Colourful housing
  Concrete reality  



XII


Suffused light Oyster pit Squat tree
  Persistent warble  
Green triangle Discarded net Oyster shells
  Blue Harmony  
Still boats Bird call Wind calm
  Reflected sky  
     
  A few cigarette butts  
  A few crisp packets  
  A few tin cans:  
  Skol, Diet Coke,  
  Beck's, Budweiser,  
  Fanta, Guinness,  
  Carlsberg, Dr Pepper  
     
Persistent warble Epstein mud Suffused harmony
  Constable sky  



XIII


Distant droning Eroding cliff Corroding anchor
  Burst ballon  
Reg grass Green grass Yellow grass
  Brown grass  
Bounding dog Heiroglyphic marsh Submerged tray
  White feather  
     
  Abandoned  
  Pillboxes  
  Guard  
  The beach  
  Oystercatchers  
  Patrol  
  The mudflats  
     
Broken twig White sail Shark's tooth
  White male  



XIV


Hovering sparrowhawk Gliding heron Crow shadow
  Abandoned tyre  
Sprained ankle Dead shag Distant track
  Marbled pool  
Startled wren Chocolate marsh Deep water
  Reed river  
     
  A line of blasted  
  Trees stretches  
  Out into the  
  Heart of the  
  Salt marsh  
  Epitaph to a  
  Failed project  
     
Barking dog Hovering shadow Startled track
  Dead water  



XV


Sinking crane Luminous soil Tilted buoy
  Stooping sparrowhawk  
Piercing call Abandoned chair Icy gust
  Diving shag  
Red leaf Blue boat Yellow arrow
  Barbed water  
     
  The smack's  
  Russet sail  
  Metamorphoses wind  
  Into motion  
  The song of the  
  Skylark hovers  
  Over the ocean  
     
Sinking boat Luminous water Tilted call
  Piercing gust  

 

Page Four


XVI


Meandering crow Flowering blackthorn Nascent saplings
  Deserted hide  
Wintering bales Spongy track Offshore gales
  Desiccated leaf  
Gravel crunch Sculpted pool Spring sandwort
  Red earth  
     
  Driftwood  
  Plastic  
  Cans  
  Polystyrene  
  Print of dog  
  Feather of goose  
  Skylark warbling  
     
Wintering hide Sculpted blackthorn Deserted pool
  Offshore crow  



XVII


Percussive creek Beached hull Snacking crow
  Saluting sail  
Yellow boat Sunlit shore Gurgling tide
  Crumbling shore  
Luminescent blackthorn Cracked earth Aggressive bee
  Camouflaged tent  
     
  Rumble of  
  Spitfire across  
  The marsh  
  Banking  
  Looping  
  Climbing  
  Swooping  
     
Aggressive shore Camoflaged bee Sunlit crow
  Luminescent creek  



XVIII


Jellied eels Illegible warning Distant castle
  Racing ducks  
Cuckoo call Parsimonious rainfall Blue train
  Phallic chimneys  
Isolated spot Lowing cattle Suspicious greeting
  Banking helicopter  
     
  White egrets  
  Patrol the mudflats  
  A hand  
  Tightens  
  On the  
  Rape  
  Alarm  
     
Toy stuka Isolated spot Mock dogfight
  Distant castle  



XIX


Postmodern town Perished galosh Feathery bulrush
  Dandelion clock  
Unlet units Floating bale Barge skeleton
  Bland town  
Archaeological features Roman salt Walking runner
  Asda lung  
     
  Careful management  
  Of grassland  
  Protects ant hills  
  The trees' teeth  
  Decay on the  
  Jaw of the  
  Horizon  
     
Unlet bulrush Postmodern lung Dandelion town
  Archaeological galosh  



XX


Ditch litter Inquisitive horse Gilding swallows
  Snorting horse  
Red boat Waterlogged sock Distant steeples
  Absorbent footwear  
Infantile laughter Earth island Darkening sky
  Deep excavations  
     
  Trade winds  
  Carry plastic  
  Bags from  
  The landfill  
  Site across  
  The waters:  
  Witches' knickers  
     
Snorting swallows Inquisitive footwear Ditched sky
  Infantile excavation  

 

Page Five


XXI


Colourful beach huts Sticky flax Still barge
  Broken shell  
Purple clover Cut reeds Pink clover
  Smooth egg  
White mustard Dancing cow parsley Yellow boat
  Russet sail  
     
  Shiny  
  Black  
  Ribbed  
  Slug  
  Crossing  
  The  
  Path  
     
Colourful reeds Sticky shell Still flax
  Russet sail  



XXII


Still pool Colourful sails Lip of mussel
  Vapour trail  
Blue shell Squashed beetle Razor shell
  Pool shadow  
Yellow gorse Salty shore White butterfly
  Still pool  
     
  Sunlight  
  On  
  Water  
  Mother of pearl  
  Driftwood  
  Shingle  
  Distant laughter  
     
Colourful sails Blue mussel Still shadow
  Vapour trail  



XXIII


Isolated reader Mown track Soaring swallows
  Grey dinghy  
Waterside garden Overgrown path Diminutive dogs
  Pink cottages  
Private quay Pink thrift Adventurous cat
  Terracotta buoy  
     
  A rusting  
  Footbridge  
  Spans  
  The water  
  Planks lead  
  Into the  
  Marsh  
     
White rose Black houseboat Fluttering page
  Diminutive garden  



XXIV


Blue butterfly White rose Purple clover
  Black-headed gull  
Fluttering butterfly Brown dog Soaring buzzard
  Black pollen  
Pink thorn Sticky heat Marsh harrier
  Ruddy duck  
     
  Pursued by  
  Birdwatchers  
  With telescopic  
  Lenses  
  We struck out  
  Across the  
  Mudflats  
     
Pink thorn Flapping swallow Rare vetch
  Black pollen  



XXV


Bog oak Wind gust Abandoned track
  Bright sails  
Rusted carriage Marsh map Gull call
  Bright dress  
Bricked-up windows Lone oystercatcher Silted water
  Lone tower  
     
  If you  
  Listen  
  Carefully  
  You can hear  
  Ghost trains  
  Taking day-trippers  
  To the water's edge  
     
Cast anchor Distant laughter Raised eyebrows
  Bright sails  

 

Page Six


XXVI


Bell peel Leaf fall Brown cow
  Swinging tail  
Absent elm Fly buzz Bivouacked cow
  Nettle sap  
Reposing cow Synchronised bells Flapping cow
  Stern cow  
     
  Without  
  Moving  
  They stare  
  You out  
  Of  
  The  
  Field  
     
Coughing cow Camouflaged cow Swinging tail
  Leaf fall  



XXVII


Blue water Rippling water Flat water
  Murky water  
White water lilies Moored barge Deflated ball
  Upturned boat  
Bright water Still water Sheltered water
  Navigable water  
     
  Sugar loaf or  
  Upended swan?  
  Maggots  
  Pierced  
  By hooks  
  Fly through  
  The air  
     
Dangerous water Shadowy water Ominous water
  Shrill call  



XXVIII


Gun emplacement Strategic position Magazine passage
  Increased range  
Intact embrasures Adjacent bastion Landport gate
  Curtain walls  
Cartridge stores Copper hinges Water pump
  Continental design  
     
  Each gun  
  Weighed  
  12 tons and  
  Had a range  
  Of around  
  4.5 miles  
  (7.25 km)  
     
Strategic gate Intact pump Adjacent passage
  Continental design  



XXIX


Still river Pigeon coo Waterside villas
  Red rose  
Private slipway Scorched grass Pub garden
  Yellow sign  
Muddy dog Persistent wasp Gentle breeze
  Piped music  
     
  100 yards  
  Ahead cables  
  Stretch across  
  The river  
  Blue decking  
  Awaits the  
  Barbecue  
     
Private villas Pub sign Yellow dog
  Persistent wasp  



XXX


Abandoned bottle Red admiral Private road
  Clipped hedge  
Static swallows Peculiar people Peeling sightscreens
  Shaved sea wall  
Grey gunboat Missing chair Yellow cranes
  Cuneiform seagulls  
     
  The dog  
  Barks at  
  The red  
  Lawnmower  
  Is it  
  Time  
  For lunch?  
     
Abandoned hedge Cuneiform crane Grey admiral
  Missing chair  

 

Page Seven


XXXI


Velvet mud Airborne seeds Smooth bank
  Oscillating fern  
Iron fence Yellow transport Discarded packaging
  Permissive paths  
Reversing lorry Industrial waste Locked warehouse
  Chequered flag  
     
  Empty blue  
  Pallets  
  Stacked  
  In piles  
  Profit margins  
  Recorded  
  In files  
     
Distant tower Chestnut horse Winding track
  Perimeter fence  



XXXII


White canoe Marsh pool Dung scent
  Bird call  
Sea wrack Red canoe Wind spirit
  Turning seal  
Sky loop Thistle spore Fairy ring
  Waving seal  
     
  Marking high  
  Water in the  
  Samphire forest:  
  Crabs  
  Seaweed  
  Feathers  
  Leaves  
     
White canoe Sea wrack Sky loop
  Turning seal  



XXXIII


Blustery day Misleading sign Distant gantry
  Uneven track  
Crisp corn Pheasant's-eye Red tractor
  Turbulent shore  
Colourful graffiti Dinosaur cranes Constant swans
  Crackling sloes  
     
  Nettles  
  Whipped  
  By  
  The  
  Wind:  
  Hedgerow  
  Hydra  
     
White clover Red tractor Chalky soil
  Distant gantry  


Copyright © Philip Terry

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