Essay by Ian Duhig for an international anthology of Ekphrastic poetry (where poems are accompanied by a prose commentary)


Breath Water Marks

“To most people who look at a mobile, it’s no more than a series of flat objects that move. To a few, though, it may be poetry.” – Alexander Calder
“Nothing is more beautiful than water” – Andreij Tarkovsky.

I’d worked with sculptor Juliet Gutch and a number of other artists on the Dovetailing multimedia installation at The Manor House in Ilkley in 2021, which was both successful and enjoyable, so when she invited me to become involved with her new project Breath Water Marks, I was very receptive to the idea. After Ilkley, Dovetailing moved on to the Windermere Jetty Museum in the Lake District. Juliet spent time at the museum and particularly noticed the patterns of wake left on the surface of water. She began photographing them, manipulating those images and ultimately making mobile sculptures inspired by these figurations. While she was there, she also spent time in the adjoining boatyard and conservation workshop and observed the renovation of the recovered hulk of Ferry Mary Anne, a ferry boat which may have been used by the Wordsworth family.

I think Juliet imagined I would be drawn to Breath Water Marks because of the Wordsworth connection (the work will eventually be shown at the Wordsworth Grasmere Museum) and of course I was. But I was also attracted to the challenge of writing about sculpture inspired by water, exploring in-between states, provisional worlds created by the mobiles but never fully-occupied by them as their motion continually redefined their topographies. Even when Breath Water Marks is ready for exhibition, it will still exist in a condition of permanent becoming – inevitably and correctly, given the task’s central paradox: taking water and making its beauty fly.

The notion of a ferry between worlds also transported my imagination; I could visualise Wordswoth’s ghost still aboard, keen to explore more “unknown valleys’ from it as he had done when a boy. Windermere is in an ancient Celtic part of England, Cumbria, and for Celts, lakes were portals leading to the Otherworld. That belief features in my poems because Juliet’s mobiles embodied for me the idea that movement is life, as it was for Aristotle; the wood of her sculptures still and motionless like trees, animated by wind. I often watched them slowly turn and return, worlds winding and rewinding histories like Yeats’s gyres. Yeats’ phrase from Byzantium turned through my mind as well: “I call it death-in-life and life-in-death”, its echoes gathered meanings as Breath Water Marks developed.

As I mention in my poem Breathturn, Celtic letters are named from trees and this was a way of infiltrating the essence of the mobiles with the essence of poetry. Walcott spoke in an interview once of “the essential cube that really is the poem” and my boxy quatrains (even more so when double-spaced) reflect something Juliet wrote for Dovetailing: “Each mobile hangs from a point of the cube within which it explores all the different potential configurations.” If these comments sound as if from the world of mathematics, the element inspiring them is of a very different nature: water. This is the same paradox as in poetry, the pull of language’s music against the stubborn insistence of words on meaning, that tidal flux and reflux which is both blessing and curse to the poet.

Poets on these islands have historically been inspired by water, a tradition going back at least to the Old English poem The Seafarer in the tenth-century Exeter Book. Images connecting water and language are so well-established as to be clichéd: the babbling brook, someone gushing their enthusiasm and so on. Taking the ferry back to Ireland, I’d stare at the passing sea for hours: the water seemed to me like fire in its shapeshifting power, but also wind and music played freely – a reel, perhaps. Music is frequently associated with water in many forms; the title Juliet chose for her project alludes to breath marks: symbols in musical notation indicating a slight pause, putting me in mind of the glottal stop employed by sean-nós vocalists that might represent the singer being overcome by the emotion of the words, a moment of plangent tranquillity in the middle of an overflow of powerful feelings.

Those held breaths, my own before Juliet’s moving, beautiful sculptures, I now see as tidal pulses of life foreshadowing its end. That all art is created against death is hardly an original thought, but one whose truth seems plainer as I age. The end of my poem here alludes to Fulke Greville’s Caelica 83:

‘You that seek what life is in death,
Now find it air that once was breath.’

For this poet and Juliet’s mobiles there are intimations of immortality in nature’s cycles – she often uses recycled wood. But we live in a time seemingly intent on fouling nature’s engines: the UK’s rivers and seas are being poisoned by sewage. At heart, Breath Water Marks is a celebration, not only of water’s inspirational beauty, but of water clean enough that you can see through to new worlds, worlds that have always been there, will always be there if we can draw back from destroying them permanently.

Ian Duhig Spring 2023