i. Port Meadow, Oxford, 1983
Walking to Woodstock Road from Wytham
where leaf-worlds welled from all the wood’s wands,
we talked salmon, midges, flood meadows, the energy system
cindering softly under us, slow-cooking the marshlands.
‘The gate ought to be here. The map said so.
That map back at my flat . . . Look, there’s a spot
somewhere this way where sheep shove through.
See those fieldfares and redwings? They landed last night.’
Then a step within a fence nobody bothered with for years
or knew, except the sheep. So Nick stepped up
and through, and there on the other side, two horses
with thrilled-up ears, barged him skilfully to a stop.
‘I said that gate was around here,’ pointing a mile or two.
‘Worth the way’ – Nick’s arms across both horses – ‘to know these two.’
This water’s steep and deep. There are signs in artery red
whose letters pump with advice. But it’s June and we have trod
ourselves senseless sampling some imaginary species of coleoptera . . .
So, there are our cautions slung down like life-vests by the river
and with stone-drop certainty we launch out from a hanging ledge
to collide with a chill so stinging it was like flinging your body
into a bank of nettles. Then head-butting the surface to see
at eyelash-level the whiphands of Common Backswimmers surge
and sprint, each footing a tiny dazzle to prism.
sparking ornaments hovering then islanding on our shoulders
each arching its thorax into a question: what is the blue
that midnights all blue? How can crimson redden before you?
The old map mutters that Here Be Dragons, and it lies.
Here be Darters, Skimmers, drawn flame. Here, are dragonflies.
iii. The Water Measurer
We could have watched him until our watches rusted on our wrists
or the tarn froze for the year’s midnight. The Water Measurer
struck his pose and recalibrated his estimates as if he had misplaced
his notebook, or perhaps his mind, with all that staring at water.
Why does he walk on it with such doubt and mismeasure
when he has the leisure of hydrophobia (those water-fearing hairs
on the undersides of his legs)? Maybe that is his secret,
that he doesn’t know his step will never or not quite penetrate
the depth below, glowing with prey and the upturned eyes
of predators. Does he ever get any of this right? Is he unwise?
He tests and counts, counts and tests, in pinprick manoeuvres,
never satisfied with the data of darkness or statistics of sunlight.
It seems he holds his nose at the thought of getting it right, or of not
getting it not right, never or not quite like the water fly in Hamlet.