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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

22 July 2022

Malcolm Guite untethers his boat, drifts on the river, and leaves the clocks behind

THESE long hot days make us all pant, like the hart, for cooling streams — to desire the water-brooks, which sound even more refreshing, in the delicious liquid Latin version of Psalm 42, where the hart longs for the the fontes aquarum.

Fortunately, and notwithstanding the vicissitudes of my chaotic diary, I have managed to steal a little time to drift on the fontes aquarum of Norfolk: the Bure, the Thurne, and the Ant, the three rivers that connect and meander through the northern Broads.

I say “steal a little time”, but perhaps it’s not stealing at all. It feels more like letting time loose and freeing it up rather than carrying it away captive. It is almost as though, when I untie my little boat, Ranworth Rose, and she slips her moorings and carries me out on to the water, it is time itself that has been untethered and allowed to flow freely at last. I think of the fine opening quatrain of “The Spirit”, from Orpheus, Don Paterson’s version of Rilke’s Sonnets To Orpheus:

Praise the spirit that can make us one,

For we live our lives in signs and figures.
The false clocks with their little steps march
Beside the stream of our authentic day.

It is a telling contrast between the “false clocks with their little steps”, pretending, by artifice, to divide and segment the indivisible flow of time, and the actual stream of time itself, which is our element, in which we should bathe, on which we should float rather than march dutifully beside it on dry land with our “little steps” — although, as the next line of the poem puts it, “our element’s a mystery.”

Once you’re floating on a stream, of course, once your little boat is carried by its current, there is a sense in which it no longer flows past you; for you move with it at its natural pace and enter an unexpected stillness. Now it is the fixed and desiccated cares and duties of the land which flow past you, slip away, and are left behind. I tried to suggest a little of that in the poem “Joy” in my sequence After Prayer:

The fine prow lifting, as my vessel heels,
The tiller tugs and quivers, and I’m free
Of all the land’s long cares.

On this particular day, though, with hardly a breath of wind, the tiller was perfectly still in my hand, and we simply drifted, the long lazy loops of the mainsheet dipping occasionally into the water and lifting again with little splashes, not loud enough to disturb a grey heron, perched as a sentinel on an overhanging branch, perfectly reflected in the still water, and gazing into its depth with a concentration that I will never attain.

But concentration was not my aim. Indeed, I had no aim at all and no destination; I had only, at last, to be and not to do. I had wisely left my watch on shore, had escaped at last from what e e cummings calls the “colossal hoax of clocks and calendars”, and was free to enjoy, in Gwyneth Lewis’s lovely phrase, “a day emptied to its brim”.

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