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A Fold in the River

Philip Gross
Valerie Coffin-Price
ISBN-13: 
9781781722336
Publication Date: 
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)
£12.99

A Fold in the River, from Seren Books, is the fruit of collaboration between T.S. Eliot prize-winning poet Philip Gross and the visual artist Valerie Coffin Price. Philip Gross once lived on the banks of the River Taff in Wales and his journals are the source for the powerful poems. Valerie Coffin Price revisited the walking route along the river and evolved the beautiful prints and drawings that accompany the poems.

REVIEWS

Review By Jonathan Davidson, The North

Monday, August 1, 2016

A Fold in the River is a collaboration between artist Valerie Coffin Price and poet Philip Gross which sprang from their fascination with the River Taff in South Wales. It is by all accounts an unlovely river, described towards the end of the book as 'murky, greenishy-grey and techy-a sour smell too, slightly chemical, slightly tinged with mould.' While it is clear neither Gross nor Price set out to make the river anything but what it is, the first of many triumphs of the book at least is beautifully produced. Text and image(rather than paintings, for the images are in several mediums and are integral to the text) are entwined in various ways, sometimes with printed text as part of a full page of images, sometimes hand-written text distressed by colour washes, elsewhere simple charcoal(seemingly, fittingly) horizons or hillsides flanked or flanking text. And while there are many pages of just text even these are often set carefully in a way redolent of concrete poetry. In this way, our reading of the text ranges from the absolutely clear, traditionally typeset poems to text distressed and barely readable in washes and blocks of colour. The river has run through- is running through- the book.

An epigram on the frontispage states that the book was '...born of a folding sketchbook, writer's notebooks, drawings,poems, walking and a conversation with each other's work...' and it is perhaps the conversation that is most evident as we move through the pages. Individual poems or short sequences of poems are interleaved with prose-in what appears to be a more utilitarian typeface, suggesting fact fresh off the portable typewriter-recording river-lore, river-history, river-gossip;the geology, hydrology, architecture(via ducts) and ecology. And even these factual, functional reports, are laced with poetry, laid out as blocks texts but with unexpected line-breaks, unfinished punctuation, and in many cases the interventions of water in the form of washes of paint. These feel like the vertebrae of the conversation between Gross and Price. It is not clear who is gathering or writing which piece, but it does feel like there is a give and take of knowledge and wonder, the kind of conversation that ebbs and flows as two people walk along a riverside, watching their step, talking and then not talking, stopping now and then to watch and listen.

The poems distil the experience of the river and offer a counterpoint to the imprecision of the images. They are mostly short, always precise in their descriptions and meanings, more like what might have been washed down by the river than the confluence itself. Here's an example:

The river sits

down in the valley bottom, wide

skirt, many petticoats

of catchment round her;

rumpled up. Poor thing,

she takes it all to heart.

 

There is a pleasing simplicity of diction and structure in this and many of the poems. These are not poems that rely on punchlines or knowingness; they give easily what they have to give; thoughtful and thought provoking, full of ideas about what the river really is and how we experience it. In the poem, Knowing the River, for instance, the beguiling opening line: 'That the Taff is a species of fire/ we know:' is followed by a gloriously erudite meditation on the origins of coal, the extracting of that coal, the bikers' club on the A470 on a summer Sunday and the fire in the engines of their bikes,  which ends with the elegance of: 'That the Taff is a species//of knowing. Not one we can have or hold.'

Although there are less than thirty poems, coupled with prose sections and the images, they offer us the river in many forms. In the poem 'The Taff as Anything But' we are give a bristling litany of ways of thinking about the Taff, from the Congo to 'the swollen/vein-track blue-black/in the forearm of the kid/from Abercynon...' And in 'Praise Song for the Taff' we are given five sections- poems in their own right-that in the process of asking us to 'mistrust the river;/ its apparent clarities' manages to offer images of absolute clarity, such as 'a kingfisher;/wielding-torch blue.' and 'The water; though, twinkles/ with forgetfulness/ of how the coal dust flowed...'

'A Fold in the River' is an experiment in how two art forms- and two artists- can work together and the result, so carefully designed and rendered, is a pleasure to hold, read and look at/through. The limitations of working with only one subject forces inventiveness, allows repetition to become part of the overall effect, and draws us into the life of the river. Refreshingly too, for the personalities of the artists to be largely subsumed to the subject; this is genuinely a book about the River Taff that happens to have been channelled through two artists and their practice, rather than a vehicles for exploring the artists' personalities. The final section of the poem, The Conversation, describes an aspect of the river but also the experience of this marvellous book:

much as this

rippling shiftless shift

of interference patterns,con-

 

-versation, moves

of itself, without moving,

as silk flows, it waves

 

of moiré, something of

us and between us, made of

 

you and men, yet neither me nor you.

 

User Reviews

Rosie Johns's picture

Rosie Johns

5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Review by Natalie Charlesworth

Whilst A Fold in the River does remind me of a lot of the themes and stylistic choices going on in Songs of Innocence and Experience, the collection is far from a modern day interpretation. There is a sense of partnership between the poet and the artist and indeed the work that they have produced together across the two mediums. The clean lines of the poetry blend seamlessly into the blurred ink of the artwork. Hazy images of the countryside around the river interspliced with rivulets of text.

The collection takes a unique approach and is in many ways like nothing else I have ever read. Certainly – I don’t believe I’ve ever seen ‘gurning’ (a word often used in our very northern family) in a work of literature before. It’s these specific and illuminating language choices that make the collection such a joy to read aloud. It may look like a coffee table art book – it’s awareness of the importance of negative and positive space is certainly to its creators’ credit – but is much more than just a striking a visual piece. Its a delight for the ears as well.

I suppose some books just feel really satisfying to read. A Fold in the River is one of those collections for me and I suspect I could carry on with an endless list of why. But I will leave that pleasure of discovery to you. I have already returned to it many times since my first read through sat by our nature pond in the May sunshine and I expect I will return to it again and again in the future.

09/09/2015 - 09:48