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On Being Waterland Poet in Residence 2020

Updated: Jan 4

Winter Solstice 2019, Waterland

Cotswold Water Park’s Lake 32, or Large Lake as I knew it when a kid, is fed by natural groundwater which gives it exceptional clarity. Putting my face into the water as I swim throughout the winter months to see plants reaching towards the light from the marl bed below, catching glimpses of fish and floating along at eye level with the coots and swans, brings me so much joy. And fear. I am always scared of what might be lurking in the dark waters. I’m grateful every time I survive a lake swim and for what I find when I’m out there: be that a new point of view, a huge bird shit on a buoy, a momentary snap at my ankle…

I write poetry in search of that same sense of vitality and presence that I find in the clearness of the water. It is a way to honour and immerse myself in the world I move through. It is a way to be afraid, to explore, to feel alive.

Water seems to be the poet’s element. From Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Emily Dickenson to Mary Oliver and Jen Hadfield, poets have been drawn to its mercurial qualities. Water represents life, birth, fertility, refreshment, change and the passage of time. But it can also reflect us back to ourselves, it can hold and it can destroy. In her poem ‘The Pool,’ HD wonders ‘Are you alive? I touch you.’

The Cotswold Water Park has been a treasured part of my life for more than forty years, during which time I have seen it evolve and change. I was raised in Cirencester and spent many happy hours at the water park as a child, walking our dogs around the lakes and swimming at the beach. Large Lake was still a working gravel pit when I was very young and, in my teenage years, became a windsurfing spot. My brother was and still is a keen angler and I remember him setting off night fishing with his Shakespeare tackle box and travelling with my parents to pick him up in the early hours of the morning as I swiped a peephole in the condensation on the car window to see the mist rising from the grass.

Looking forward to my poetry residency at Waterland (Lake 32) on the brink of a new year and a new decade presents so many exciting possibilities to dive deeper into the lake, past and present, and the lives of the people that use it. There are countless swimmers, kayakers, canoeists, paddle boarders, boaters, walkers and anglers (many of whom are poets themselves) who feel a great sense of belonging to and ownership of our beloved Lake 32. As part of this residency, as well as writing some of my own verse, I hope to connect and exchange with different lake users through good old-fashioned waterside chats, online sharing platforms and perhaps an event or two during 2020.

I am incredibly grateful to Jo Pendlebury and her team at Waterland for allowing me the opportunity to work as a resident poet and develop my creative practice. I am also thankful to Philip Rush at the Gloucestershire based Yew Tree Press, who will be publishing the poems emerging from the residency later in the year.

So here goes, I’m jumping off the bank, in that same spirit of curiosity that HD felt when she asked in ‘The Pool,’ ‘what are you?’ And in that same spirit of adventure and trust all poets and outdoor swimmers have: that the wonder will arrive.

Sunday Service: Winter Swimming

JLM Morton

Unscrew the lid and the steel flask rings like a singing bowl

calling the body to this winter ritual of fixing broken frequencies.

Steam from the enamel cup mists the windscreen

and we swig the coffee down, bittersweet and eager,

hot enough to relieve the brain’s thinking.

Dry Robes slither off the arms, hang on lakeside pegs

and we smirk each time at the sign: No Recreational Swimming.

Toes in, soles of feet laid down on the limestone shingle,

followed fast by ankles and calves, knees and thighs and hips

and pause at the waist

to draw breath, to exclaim, to lower palms to the bream-fin grey

of the icy mirror to the luminescent reeds,

black cormorants, conifers on the near horizon.

Goggles on. Brace. Go. Push into the navy deep,

scuds of shallow waves at the neck.

Hands sweep from prayer to embrace.

Face in, eyes open to the brightening clay floor,

a copse of weed in the water’s glacial clarity

glaucous and strange, a beatific underworld.

This lake has played, bred, killed, fed, held –

our ecstatic skins sing in praise and we drum the yellow buoy

in devotion to this heathen mass,

immerse ourselves in this instant, this place, this body of flesh and water.

Turning toward the shore, we observe the coda of submerged birch

hail again the marvel of the white magpie in its branches

give thanks for this time out of mind, this chattering spirit of renewal.

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