Jeremy Hooker on A Fold in the River


Today we’re sharing with you poet and literary critic Jeremy Hooker’s speech from the exhibition of the upcoming release A Fold in the River, a marriage of visual art and poetry by Philip Gross and Valerie Coffin Price.

This book of words and paintings and this exhibition are works of beauty. Beauty is now a rare concept, and therefore a necessary one. The American photographer, Robert Adams, who is also a lucid and profound thinker about art and life, defines beauty as Form, ‘a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life’. Beauty is shape, pattern; Adams even describes it as ‘the order in art that mirrors the order in the Creation itself’.

It isn’t to be confused with the neat and tidy. Adams quotes the American poet, A. R. Ammons: ‘the shapes nearest shapelessness awe us most, suggest the god’. That would seem to be especially appropriate to arts whose subject is water. And if we cavil at the idea of ‘order in the Creation’, even in an age familiar with Chaos theory, we may reflect that without water there would be no life on this planet, and we wouldn’t be here to celebrate a poet and a painter, and poems and paintings about a river.

But the River Taff – beautiful? Dai Smith recently described it as our ‘umbilical cord to modernity’ – the river that carried coal and iron, and bore Wales into the modern world. Hence its reputation to those who don’t know it, as a dirty or formerly dirty old river, a rough and rather disreputable one, something that corresponds to the cliché, Taffy. People familiar with the cliché alone, or with the Taff only in its more urban stretches, may snort with disbelief at the idea that it’s beautiful. But what do they know? If it doesn’t have the well-known attractions of Severn or Wye or Usk, if no one ever thought of calling it Sabrina, it is at least free of clichéd notions of beauty. The poet and painter know that it is ‘other thing’, as Philip Gross calls it: something beyond our knowledge. But what there is to know, the particular beauty of it, their words and visual images show.

A Fold in the River is a three-way collaboration, between a poet, a painter and a river. The river has many moods and many voices, which the poet interprets. It is rich in colourful appearances and quick with subtle movements. Valerie Coffin Price represents these beautifully – water colours, and colours of surrounding vegetation: silvers and purples and greens and yellows, flecks of fire-red, a mix of colours we’ve no words for, as water and its reflections exhaust our vocabulary. In some paintings words are carried by the water or emerge from it or drown in it, as the minds of poet and painter converse over the same element.

Al that they show is native to south Wales but has a touch of the exotic appropriate to the magic of the subject, a quality perhaps best seen by artists who themselves have a touch of foreignness. Valerie Coffin Price has followed in the footsteps of ancestors who travelled in far-flung places, as well as being intimate with Welsh river and border landscapes. Philip Gross is as much an English poet as anyone can be who is Cornish and Estonian. And their book has something of an Oriental spirit, combining Tao of the water-course way with the concertina form of Orihon, a book style originating from the Tang dynasty in China and later developed in Japan. One doesn’t need to know this to enjoy the book or exhibition, but effects of folding and looping influence its formal magic, and are manifest in the art work.

Poetry Philip Gross has published since he came to live in Wales suggests that he should be named the water-poet, if John Taylor, in the seventeenth century, hadn’t claimed the title for himself. There is an affinity between Gross’s style and water, especially in a particular quality of play. Here’s an example from ‘A coal pebble’:

: greyish, with a slight glint at one angle, not quite

stone, but oval and wafery, light to the touch.

(Skimmed low, it could walk on the water

almost, right up to that panicky

teeter at the end.)

The writing is based on close observation, often beginning with immediate notations, and develops through image and skilful word choice. It combines the recognisable with the miraculous, as in the image of the skimmed stone almost able to walk on water subsiding with ‘that panicky teeter’, which is a delightful, accurate rendering of something we’ve all seen. As here, Gross works with personifications which suggest an animism harking back to childhood, without reducing the awe-inspiring ‘other’ being of the elemental world.

The movement of the verse is from surface to depth, in this instance from the stone to its prehistory and social and metaphysical meaning through time, as the coal pebble recalls the Deep Navigation mine at Treharris:

A cave-diver

might yet stoop and crawl

through the long sump

dragging his budget of air behind him, half

astronaut, half miner of that worked-out near-

unreachable inner space, peering

into the night of the male

soul, a lamp in his hat.)

A Fold in the River delves deeply into history and geology, from the social present back to the swamps in which coal was laid down. It remembers the cost of industrial history, in which water has played a necessary but also a tragic part, as in the fate of Aberfan.

The poet’s quickness of mind matches the river’s moods and movements, and the painter’s art captures them, so that the Taff flows through the pages and the paintings. The book is instinct with the collaboration of poetic and artistic intelligence. Philip Gross is a profoundly witty poet – witty in the sense of both humour and intelligence, as in this passage about ‘the will of water’ from ‘The Long Game’:

This is what drips

in empty workings,

what leaks from the iron lode,

rust blood … Compared to this, a century

is Basho’s

moment: old

                   pond – frog jumps – sound

         of water … Still, we have our work: to be

reflections

who reflect

on all that throws them,

who catch at the swerves and feints of how

the water plays

the light, the light

the water; who are in the game

of knowledge (as the manager said: not

a matter of life and death …

             more important than that. )

I don’t know of another poet who could round off philosophical reflection as quick-witted as this with the comedy of the football manager’s remark. And as ‘the water plays/the light, the light/the water’ so Valerie Coffin Price’s art-work makes equivalent quick transactions of grave and subtle luminosity.

Much is enfolded in A Fold in the River, including a word of my own:

… AND SUDDENLY FLOOD – the river was a cat, a kitten – slightly feral – now suddenly today, a whiff of tiger.

I say this to Jeremy. He’s been walking up the

hill behind their house. The streams, he says, are bristling.

I’ve no recollection of having said this. The moral could be: if you’re a poet be careful what you say aloud. In fact, it’s a pleasure to have a small part in such a beautiful book.

Paul Kingsnorth in a recent article about English identity expressed the opinion that ‘the antidote’ to ‘global distancing of humanity from the rest of nature is the slow, messy business of getting to know a landscape’. Nowadays this applies equally to Wales, and doesn’t exclude English or Cornish or Estonian settlers. Philip and Zélie Gross made their home on the banks of the river Taff, and lived in that ‘messy landscape’. Valerie Coffin Price too has lived with the river. Philip and Valerie conversed with each other and with the Taff, and Valerie’s paintings have a life corresponding to the river’s colours and movements, and at times incorporate or flow over or with the poet’s words. The result is an art work with Form, a shape in words and visual images, and a beautiful book. For this, the fourth and fifth collaborators, the publisher and the curator of the exhibition, are owed special debts of gratitude.

Pre-order A Fold in the River from our website.

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