‘Treading Water’ – a new poem from Ian Humphreys

‘When I find myself slipping, I hold on / and remember what the canal taught me’ begins Ian Humphreys’ new poem, a commission by The Poetry Society supported by the Canal and River Trust.

Ian lives on the outskirts of a small West Yorkshire market town, Hebden Bridge, just a few minutes’ walk to the moors, the river and the Rochdale Canal. He’s been walking along the canal more often during lockdown, he says – ‘The water is a rich peat-brown with a murky glisten, like liquid twilight. Or, less romantically, like strong tea that’s been brewed to revive.’

‘I remember your love / for these brightly painted narrowboats’

‘Treading Water’, Ian’s canal-inspired poem, is an affecting elegy for his mum. ‘The poem describes a walk we went on a few years ago, before mum was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I wanted to capture a joyful time, to reflect on the healing power of nature, and to forge memories, through snapshot-like imagery and repetition; a modern-day spell against the urge to slip too deeply into darkness. A key theme is how no journey is a straight line – canals meander more than we imagine. Another is rebirth and hope – the Rochdale Canal’s historical journey has been unpredictable, from industrial innovation to dumping ground to nature sanctuary.

The Rochdale Canal hasn’t always been beautiful. Its mid-century decay was used as a gloomy backdrop in the 60s film, A Taste of Honey, which I first saw when I was a boy. The film felt important to me as it looked at mixed race relationships and queer lives. Then, in the early 80s, I spent a lot of time as a teenager around Manchester’s Canal Street, which is bordered by the Rochdale Canal. This was before gentrification, when the area was wonderfully seedy rather than glitzy as it is today. The canal itself was dirty, rubbish-strewn, and at night seemed dangerous and exciting. Of course, over the years, it’s transformed into a corridor for nature. So now it nurtures as well as fascinates me.’

There are more canal poems to come, Ian says. ‘A few more recent poems examine nature as healer. Some might call them eco-poems – salutations to why we must heal that which heals us physically, mentally and spiritually. I’ve spent the last six months either exploring nearby countryside or pootling in the garden so there are close observations of tiny garden creatures and tinier moorland flowers. The local, formidable dry stone walls also feature – these both protect and restrict, resonating with the new world rules introduced during lockdown.’

‘But where is our kingfisher? She must be close, waiting
to slip from a willow tree, to swoop and sip
her blue reflection, lighting up the day like a smile.’

Read ‘Treading Water’, Ian’s tender new poem here and listen to him reading it below.

Ian Humphreys’ work is widely published in journals including The Poetry Review, and he is a recipient of the Hamish Canham Prize. His debut collection Zebra is with Nine Arches Press. More at www.ianhumphreyspoet.com