Passages of water across a number of different landscapes serve as the central motif in DELTAS, the long-awaited debut collection from acclaimed poet Leonie RUSHFORTH, forthcoming from Prototype. Intertwined with this central theme are many other journeys—of individual and communities through time, mortality, friendship, resistance, motherhood, and hope—in a lyrically skilful, and dynamic debut collection.
DELTAS reveals a poetics on high alert, where the ‘tireless human sonar’ scans a compromised world for calamity and grace. In her vision of precarity and connectedness, attention might prove the opposite of surveillance: a tender, sober act of keeping faith with the ethical force of exact expression.
RUSHFORTH’s poems are provisional landscapes, like river deltas, where with language both sidelong and luminous she suggests a way of seeing and measuring distances—temporal, spatial, political—that opens a route not only to individual survival but to humane dialogue and the hope of community.
IN PRAISE OF SALT WATER
It’s a torment to be close to water, to sweat
on a path above, unable to reach it.
especially eyes narrowed against
this skewering light rejected by
so many surfaces.
Talk dries up and the island’s sounds
depend at first on the scuff of feet and then
the distant knock
of water on rock. No trees, no birds,
undemanding plants inserted into gaps—
there might be a lizard or something akin
but there’s little life here really,
the white stone’s
too good at sloughing off
water and refusing to become earth.
The only thing
is to keep walking, keep looking
for a way down until one appears
and then descend,
gingerly, slipping on loose stones,
following or perhaps conjuring a path.
There’s nowhere to change
or hide. It’s a paradise! Is it? It’s an inferno?
Who cares! Let’s take
our clothes off,
slip in by this helpful basin
offering a weedy lip—and let
the water lift.
We are not all parched
but some who are can almost feel
their thirst is slaked
by salt water, are comforted by the buoyancy
and not having to stand up
sensors flickering to a different definition
locating limbs in four dimensions
one of us can be seen running in slow motion
waving like a man in a memory
in a suddenly meaningful sunlight
towards the cool gateway where the rest of us wait
the children’s upturned faces gleam like moons
pale pulled in close to the planetary gravities
of parents longing to saunter into the heat
down gravel paths to be dwarfed
in the austerity of the aisle reach
the cloister intact
in the church a stone child holds his mother’s cloak
cradled in her smile’s horizon an idea
to warm the chill of a communal cell
coherent celibate lives the aisle is earth
(one of us crouches low mimes rolling boules)
and leads to a retable where in damaged relief
a pre-revolutionary ox absent-mindedly
eats a baby in a manger Death’s Door is open
two of us stand carefully here under
the keystone between light and shadow
one of us is piping the children
round the sweltering garden where a stranger
will tell them you’ll all go to hell swallows
are nesting in the pink ribs of the scriptorium
writing their tireless lines in and out of
the bright door folding themselves up into nothing
over the lip of the cup of the nest
to feed their safely panic-stricken young
four of us have abstracted themselves
celebrate with illuminated smiles
and upturned faces their unity
with the rigorous lines laid down by the authorities
for an hour recreating childlessness
some of us are celibate some of us worship mothers
one of us has found his daughter again
he has taken her to look at trout
milling slowly in the famous hatchery fat as monks
who sold the abbey off to Monsieur Hugo
fast when Jacobin fires flickered too close
the forge a veritable factory
is dead long live the hydraulic hammer
they invented here in the most beautiful room
two of us linger blithely knowing
they won’t be left behind while
in the car park the children catapult
themselves into their parents and yelling like devils
ricochet off to guillotine ants
with the picnic knife in the long last hours
of an adults’ afternoon
running in slow motion to next year’s seed.
From the east, that is from land and from the shelter of the creek,
all you can see
is shadow, implacable cliff. No landing place,
The only feet over there are cloven hooves that pick their way
on narrow tracks round and
round the enclave, sure and always somewhere they’ve been before
and very recently.
The strait is narrow too, an 80-metre invitation
to conquer something
despite the signs and sober warnings—take the currents on! come!
un-isle the isle.
Professional divers bubble down in pairs to look among the wrecks
of unlucky ships that took
their bearings, as they had to, from this uninhabitable rock
and this has been expressed as follows by surface navigators:
5° 20' 5.12" E, 43° 12' 39.84" N
though Julius Caesar’s mariners wrote on their maps immadras,
that is mère, that is Maïre.
Leonie RUSHFORTH was born in Ely in 1956. A writer, editor and poet, she was the winner of the Keats-Shelley Prize in 2003, and was awarded second place in the 2021 Poetry London Prize, as judged by Malika BOOKER. Alongside her many years of writing poetry and journalism, RUSHFORTH has also served on the judging panels of the Costa Book Awards and the Forward Poetry Prizes. She lives in East London, and DELTAS is her first full collection of poems.
IN PRAISE OF SALT WATER was originally featured
in TEST CENTRE #EIGHT (see here);
FONTENAY was originally published
in Carcanet’s OXFORD POETS ANTHOLOGY : 2013 (see here);
ÎLE MAÏRE was first published
in PROTOTYPE #ONE (see here)
MADONNA and CHILD (circa 14th Century);
excerpted from E. S. PRIOR and A. GARDNER,
An ACCOUNT of MEDIEVAL FIGURE-SCULPTURE
in ENGLAND (1912), p. 361