A Valentine from the river


Valentine’s Day. Consider love, dear reader: the biggest, baggiest and most baggage-laden word in our lovely language. Who expresses it best? Donne. Auden. Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare.

I’ve been thinking a lot about love as I put together my new book Kith. All kinds of love: the sexual of course, but also the love of friends, of fellow-travellers, of strangers for whom you wish good things. The love of boats; the love of self, of discovery, of the drunkenness of things being various, as MacNeice has it.

The poem below is full of complicated, buoyant loves. I wrote it after making a challenging journey up the Severn estuary on my boat Tinker. We had moored near Purton, with its extraordinary boat graveyard. I was looking down from the glassy safety of the Gloucester & Sharpness canal, back to the turbulent Severn which we had just tackled in a boat with no keel.

I had on my mind the broken love affair which had made that difficult journey necessary – but also my brother’s impending wedding, a happier love story. I was learning Shakespeare’s sonnet 116, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment…” to read at the ceremony, and I was struck by two things in it; first, Shakey’s assertion that ‘Love is not love/ which alters when it alteration finds’; second, his ‘wand’ring bark’ which is, of course, a boat. The word ‘fix’ is used here in the sense of a drug going into the vein.

This is dedicated to the two extraordinary women who joined that journey, following us up the bumpy river on nb Electra – but today it is also for Simon and Amki, on Simon’s birthday, and for anyone who finds love a channel full of whirlpools and deeps, but one still worth exploring.


Severn, from Purton
for Dru and Suzanne

Don’t take my lightness lightly; there is gravity
behind it. This slow fix, this great meander
that supplies the land’s great wants:

this fluid strength is what we borrow,
what we lean against when love inhabits us.
It alters when it alteration finds, alright;

and so it should. There is no ever-fixèd mark.
The bark’s the thing; the dot that battles tides
and if the river lets it, makes its small unlikely win.


[If you want to listen to me reading it, you can do so here.]

Published by Jo Bell

Poet, boater, archaeologist and former director of the UK's National Poetry Day. One third of @OnThisDayShe. Erstwhile UK Canal Laureate.

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