Life Under Water – Maura Dooley, Bloodaxe Books, 2008, £7.95 paperback

One of the minor questions of this project is whether you say ‘underwater’ or ‘under water’. The first suggests a distinct space – a ‘body’ of water, somewhere you might become immersed. The second, by contrast, identifies the water as something you can be ‘underneath’ – a line, a demarcation, perhaps. Under water you drown; underwater you swim.

Maura Dooley’s Life Under Water is definitely ‘under water’, and the water – often welling in an eye – often acts as a prism through which the world can be perceived differently. In ‘Dulwich Picture Gallery through a Veil of Tears’ a pair of gallery visitors, one bereft (‘missing her missing her’), both looking, perhaps, at that gallery’s collection of Poussin’s landscapes, or Murillo’s beggar children, wonder ‘how it was done exactly, were there pencil marks? /  Your swimming vision may have added something to the conviction[.]’. The tears that ‘made this life a nothing’ for the lonely friend leave ‘only art’, which is thereby unpicked to spot the working.

‘Dulwich Picture Gallery’, like many of Life Under Water‘s poems, is firmly rooted in Maura’s adoptive South London – the ‘veil of tears’ is both the altered perception of tear-filled eyes and what many ironically call the Vale of Lewisham – ‘not a valley exactly, more the morose plains of south London’ – visible from the turn-off East at the edge of leafy Dulwich Village, where it signals another point of separation. Indeed the ‘through’ of the title could refer equally to perception (looking through) and journeying – though when the travellers leave the Gallery they find ‘the road ahead a blank’.

The insistance on geographical location recurs throughout – ‘the Common’ (pointedly capitalised, though deceptively non-specific – Clapham, Wimbledon or Tooting?) appears in ‘A Tune for Dave Smith’ as in the Twelfth Night-inspired ‘What You Will’, in both instances as a haven for urban wildlife and a clearly marked out physical space. In ‘A Tune for Dave Smith’ this is compared with those vaguer, more conditional spaces between people – ‘

the water might be still for a moment, /

I would walk over it to see you.’ – which are so shaped by angles of perception and ways of looking. ‘Familiar Object Seen from an Unusual Angle’ looks at just this, while the mini-collection ‘Four Chambers’ looks at the heart as (alternately) Halal meat, science project and mantelpieced Valentine.

This precise-yet-blurred geographical siting also accompanies a shrewd political sensibility that locates these poems perhaps ‘Under Water’ but also within an apparently clear time and space. The Auden-inspired ‘The Old Masters’ refocuses Breughal through a post-9/11 lens – ‘something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky‘ – where Icarus is no longer falling into the sea, but onto hard ground. There is something of this ground even in the physical layout of the poetry, which has a clearly spatial significance – ‘From Where I Stand’ describes ‘the comma / and the full stop / afloat / on my childish horizon’, with the one flat, the other ‘Steep’ – at the culmination, the child-speaker glances back, disappointed, to see ‘oh, just a speck in the eye‘, a play with proportion and size that emphasises the created aspect of the poem-worlds we are invited to explore.

‘It is the breaking of the waters that begins it all’ begins The Source, the collection’s epilogue – or culmination – and the phrase is repeated throughout this longest poem, where waters breaking shift from birthing to creation and back again. ‘And God said, let the waters under the heavens / be gathered together in one place, / and let the dry land appear: and it was so‘. There’s something about that sense of division, separation, that seems to tie this accomplished collection together.

Life Under Water is available to purchase online at Amazon.

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