On the poetry of reservoirs

It must be difficult to be a poet in Yorkshire and not feel a need to write, at least once, about reservoirs. Near where I grew up, in south-west London, the reservoirs were more often not forbidding places with no or limited access, surrounded by high walls, which kept the water out of sight, and grassy banks grazed by strangely suburban sheep. When they were visible, the water was enclosed by undisguised concrete. Some are havens for urban birders – Stephen Moss undertook much of his formative birding at Staines Reservoir.

Those in Yorkshire tend to be tucked away, in moorland hills, and properly absorbed into their environments. Therein lies their beauty, perhaps: the knowledge that even though we, and the creatures who live in and around them, appreciate them as natural lakes (and who doesn’t love a nice lake?), they are artificial , existing only to be functional; to provide clean water to the great conurbations of the Ridings. Peter Sansom’s marvellous ‘Driving at Night’, the opening poem of his 2000 collection Point of Sale, begins:

The res through trees
is a lake or calm sea on whose far shore
a holiday is waiting, a fire laid in the grate,
the larder stocked with tins, milk in the fridge,
and on the hearth a vase of new tulips.

I know instinctively what he means. The contentment invoked in those lines is topped off by that ‘new’: these are pristine tulips, with no sign yet of their heads drooping.

I’ve mentioned previously Ted Hughes’s poem ‘Widdop’, about the reservoir of the same name, a few miles north-west of his house at Lumb Bank, which he subsequently gave to the Arvon Foundation. Its opening lines are as vividly memorable as Peter’s:

Where there was nothing
Somebody put a frightened lake.

When I spent a very hot week at Lumb Bank in 2018, I wrote my poem ‘Dawson City’, set against the backdrop of the making of the Walshaw Dean reservoirs between 1900 and 1912, and one, channelling Seurat, called ‘Bathers at Widdop Reservoir’.)

I drafted a haiku about five years ago, while walking round Damflask, one of the reservoirs which supply Sheffield, and then forgot about until a few weeks ago, during a return visit to Bradfield, when I added the allusion to the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864:

a hairpin bend
to where a village drowned—
the smell of pigs

It was, though, the appearance in issue #66 of The North of Victoria Gatehouse’s brilliant – and brilliantly-titled – poem ‘Reservoir Gods’ which set me off on this post. Vicky brought it for workshopping in a session of the last Poetry Business Writing School, but we had nothing constructive to say because it seemed – it was – already word-perfect. As the title indicates, the gaze of the poet romanticizes the protagonists, but within a framing of the risks which they take:

They pay no heed to warning signs
about deep water and toxic blooms
of blue-green algae. These are dangers
which don’t concern them

Earlier in this Covid year, with little to do but head out into the natural and not-so-natural world, there seem to have been a lot of drownings in reservoirs – including one of a 16-year-old boy in the closest, Ulley, to where I live. Gatehouse doesn’t say explicitly that the people she’s writing about are young men, but it’s obvious that they are, as confirmed by the rich details: ‘all swagger, / in a hit of Hugo Boss’. The description continues beautifully, as if this is a Rococo Arcadian scene painted by Watteau:

and the afternoon cracks open, fizzes
like a shaken can, all vigour and foam
as they strip and dive in.

It’s one of those poems which needs to be anthologised as the instant classic it is.

2 thoughts on “On the poetry of reservoirs

  1. Only just spotted this, Matthew! Good to read – far more depth and interest than my six-line provocation….

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