Caught by the River

Books of the year so far – Part III

Tim Dee | 28th July 2019

Such an elegant response to our submission request that we thought we’d give it its own post. From one Tim Dee:

The first six months of this year I was finishing a book of my own so I avoided the books of others. Fear of contamination (toxic jealousy, stifling appreciation etc) put me off some obvious ones.  They wait for me now with their one-word titles like the labels on an old geological model: Underland (Robert Macfarlane), Surfacing (Kathleen Jamie), and Homing (Jon Day).

I did read Julia Blackburn’s Time Song, about sea-drowned Doggerland, and I marvelled at how a book can be so beautifully and movingly made out of not knowing very much beforehand and not finding very much in its making.  It is an object lesson in how to use the subjective.    

Adam Nicolson’s The Making of Poetry, about Coleridge and Wordsworth’s year in Somerset that issued in their Lyrical Ballads, is full of brave knowing and finds bold things to say about what is already well-known.  With energetic and warm-blooded prose (and a set of genius woodcuts from Tom Hammick), Adam goes footstepping after the poets and finds that much of their new poetry came from their deeply located and consciously localliving in the wooded combes of the Quantocks.  

Two works of fiction pushed deep at me with great persuasion.  Made-up stories tell us the truth as it is inside and I need their findings as much as any archaeology, anthropology, history, literary criticism or nature-talk. Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day about two contemporary couples reconfigured and surviving after the death of one of the four is superbly observed, sharp and shocking, but also humanly generous.  James Lasdun’s Victory is two almost conjoined novellas with animal underpinnings and richly disturbing readings of what lies beneath us all.  There are more underlands and more surfacings than we might think. 

Between paragraphs three and four I saw a humpback breach from the window of my house in Cape Town. Mark Cocker’s second volume of Claxton country diaries has just made it to me. I’ll wrap myself in it for comfort during the South African winter.  

Poetry keeps me company too – always and all ways: in these last months – Denise Levertov, Thom Gunn, Elizabeth Bishop, Guillevic, Ronald Johnson, Jaan Kaplinski, and Tomas Tranströmer. Read any of all of them for open-heart surgery and the best of what we still might want to call nature writing.

This is part of Tranströmer’s prose-poem ‘Upright’ (translated by Robert Bly).  It is set in Chad where I too this year have tried to find my balance and write the place:

on the banks of the Chari, there were many boats, an atmosphere
positively friendly, the men almost blue-black in color with three parallel
scars on each cheek (meaning the Sara tribe).  I am welcomed on a boat—
it’s a canoe hollowed from a dark tree.  The canoe is incredibly rocky,
even when you sit on your heels.  A balancing act.  If you have the heart on
the left side you have to lean a bit to the right, nothing in the pockets, no big
arm movements, please, all rhetoric has to be left behind.  It’s
necessary: rhetoric will ruin everything here.  The canoe glides out over
the water.


Tim Dee’s Landfill came out from Little Toller in 2018; his Greenery, about the spring, will come with the swallows, in 2020 from Cape.