"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
The donkey followed me to the ford.
I pointed at the river’s grey colour and told him
how it ran orange back in the steelworks days
and trout and limestone turned rusty.
I showed him how, even now, you could scrape a stone
and still disturb red oxide.
The donkey remained silent, eyeing the depth of water.
I told him about the spring that used to bubble
in the lane, clear and cool.
Still he stood. I couldn’t fathom his thoughts so,
hitching up my skirt, I crossed the ford.
Behind me a clatter, then a splashing. I called out
The river is mostly recycled rain but he continued
upstream. And though he’d told me nothing, his absence
was a cold draught, cold as the incessant water.
[from new pamphlet Someone Else’s Street, Happenstance Press 2017]
It’s Easter, so I thought we should have a donkey.
First, a declaration of interest. Robbie Burton is a dear friend as well as a poet whose work I admire. I’ve hoped for a long time to see her name on a published collection, and now it’s here. I promise, however, that this poem is included on its own merits. It’s unlike any other poem in the pamphlet (click the link above to see another). All of them have the same mix of quiet wit and wisdom. Some of them can make you laugh and cry almost at the same moment.
I keep saying that ‘a poem isn’t about what it’s about.’ I keep saying that the events in a poem usually stand for something else. So what’s with the donkey?
We’ll come back to that. For now, let’s assume that the conversation with the donkey is imaginary, and look at the poem. The stanzas are in neat symmetrical shape – 4 lines, then 2, 3, 2, 4. No rhyme scheme that I can see, nor much in the way of internal rhymes or sound effects. The line breaks are mostly of the ‘little cliffhanger’ type, giving you just a heartbeat to wonder what is coming next – ‘told him/ how it ran orange’ or ‘called out/ The river is mostly recyled rain‘ or ‘he continued/ upstream’ or ‘you could scrape a stone/ and still disturb red oxide.’ Each stanza ends with a full stop and there are five other full stops, so the pace is slow and thoughtful but the effect is not clunky and obvious.
Right at the beginning, we’re at a ford. Imagine it. By definition it’s a shallow place where you can cross a river. They belong to edgelands and places at the edge of towns, perhaps in a wood or country lane. More than that, the poem is actually called Ford. This word is important, says the poet. Keep it in mind.
A ford gives you a choice: cross the river at the cost of getting your feet wet, or stay where you are. There is always a moment of hesitation, of bracing yourself for the shock. In that moment of holding back, the poet explains the history of the river. It’s not a grand, dramatic river requiring a bridge. It’s an ordinary, even grubby channel with evidence of the industrial past clinging to its pebbles if you choose to ‘disturb’ it. There is other water too, ‘clean and cool’ in the poet’s memory.
She’s doing her best to make conversation but the donkey remains silent. She’s doing her best to make the crossing attractive but he remains obstinate, as donkeys will. That’s why he’s a donkey and not a pony or a thoroughbred. We expect recalcitrance of a donkey. Every word counts in a poem, including ‘and’ and ‘the’. Look at the first line. This is not ‘a donkey’, it’s ‘the donkey’. She knows him already. They have met before.
There is one piece of information that I’m privy to and you don’t yet know, unless you have seen the back of the pamphlet. Ten years ago, Robbie Burton lost her husband. Some of the poems in her collection touch on that life-changing loss, yet you don’t need that information to understand this poem. It’s not explicitly about bereavement. It’s too simple to say that the donkey stands for a lost loved one and the river stands for life, but that is certainly a part of the poem’s power. The river’s movement is ‘incessant,’ making no allowance for grief. It is ‘mostly recycled rain’, embodying its own past in the silt and discoloured stone, but able to take on fresh spring water too. Meanwhile, the donkey is not budging and Robbie can only have a one-way conversation with it. She can’t ‘fathom’ his thoughts – a watery choice of word. Hesitation or indecision makes no difference to either river or donkey. Life goes on. What is one to do?
The couplet that answers the question is the hub on which the poem turns. The language is unobtrusive but decisive. ‘Still he stood. I couldn’t fathom his thoughts so….’ See how that line break makes us wait just one second more, for the decision that the whole poem has led up to?
And then the poet makes her choice. She’s done her best with the donkey. Now, in a small act of determination ‘hitching up my skirt, I crossed the ford.’ And goes on. The donkey is still there on the other side. Still, ‘his absence was a cold draught, cold as the incessant water.’ The loss is always there, but the river keeps flowing. We’ve all had a decision like this to make – to stay with our grief/ partner/ job/ home, or to move on at some cost, taking only the memory with us. Robbie offers us one way to tackle it. And as the credits roll, the last image in our minds is not the stubborn donkey, but the cold and incessant water.