Well-found. A review of James Caruth’s “Narrow water”

james caruth 7

Are you tired of winter? I am. Bone tired. Someone said yesterday that it’s been going on for five months. He was quite upbeat about this, being a climber….there’s still deep snow on the Scottish mountains, and big ice-climbs still viable on the Nevis. But I’m tired of rain and greyness. And possibly just tired. I’m feeling stale, my brain’s clogged, I can’t think fast enough. Hungover with poetry and poetry travelling. Three weeks ago I was in the snow of Upper Wensleydale on a poetry residential that took me into some dark places…very introspective and uncomfortable. When I look now at what I wrote, it seems a lot more upbeat than it felt at the time, but it was, well, tiring. And then I was off to read in Cork at Ó Bhéal…it’s a great place to read in is The Long Valley, and I loved doing it; Cork is a lovely looking city, but it takes it out of a chap. Train cancelled, flight delayed, late night, and so on. I’ve been down to Sheffield for a poetry night (thanks for a great reading, Roy Marshall) and again for a Writing Day. And also to the outskirts of Penistone  for a launch event for today’s guest poet, James Caruth. At the start of this week it was a two day journey for the funeral of one of my best friends; a funeral in the pouring rain of Northampton. Over-travelled and emotionally drained.

Enough of the self-pity. I’d rather celebrate being alive and surrounded by so many good things, and the poetry of Jim  Caruth in particular. Promises to keep; this was due to be written last week, but better late than never.

I’ll start with notes I wrote in the back of Jim’s new pamphlet Narrow Water.

March 23. near Penistone. The Methodists are dark and closed. No-one’s here but me. Later the Penistone Poets arrive and now there are six of us. Eventually someone turns up to lat us in and there is light and warmth. Jim arrives…he is unwell; his face is badly swollen, but he’s here and up for it, and we have poets and poems. Julie Mellor and Jim. Doll’s houses and Bukowski, Friday nights after school, waterskiing in a disused gravel pit, and changing out of wetsuits in a changing room improvised from curtaining, in that hour that was solitary, those unwinding sentences. Jim does landscapes of stone and gorse, small unroofed churches, one like an upturned boat in a bitter wind, the pigeon crees of Penistone Road. Everyone in the audience buys a book. Every one. This is something that should catch on. In his second set we meet the men and women of his family, the landscapes of their history, Donegal and Slieve Foy. It’s a lovely evening. I have a head full of images and music.

james caruth 3

It seemed then, and it seems now exactly right that Julie Mellor would introduce Jim’s reading, and provide the support. They are both winners of the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition, and the title poem of Julie’s pamphlet,  Breathing through our bones ends like this:

Here in these towns where everyone

is someone’s cousin twice removed,

we are all breathing through our bones.

and it’s just right, because it evokes, for me,  the kinds of buttoned up small communities that provide the landscapes of many of the poems in Jim’s new collection Narrow water, where

The women of my childhood

are practiced in silence…………

hide their hair in tight knots……….

are deep buttoned chairs…………..

know lost words for love.


I wrote about Jim’s poetry a couple of years ago, and I’ll be recycling elements of that post, but if you don’t know his work already I’ll introduce him properly.

James Caruth was born in Belfast but has lived in Sheffield for the last 30 years. His first collection –  A Stones Throw was published in 2007 by Staple followed by a long sequence – Dark Peak, published by Longbarrow in 2008 and a pamphlet – Marking the Lambs, from Smith Doorstop in 2012.

His poem from this collection – The Deposition won the Sheffield Poetry Prize in 2011. His work has also been included in The Sheffield Anthology (Poems from the City Imagined), Smith Doorstop 2012 and The Footing, Longbarrow Press 2013 which includes a sequence of poems Tithes, based around the village of Stannington in South Yorkshire where he lives.

His pamphlet The Death of Narrative was a winner of the Poetry Business Competition 2014 It was judged by Carol Ann Duffy who said –

James Caruth’s poems tell stories that draw the reader in. His voice is warm and moving, and there is music to his writing which is completely captivating. This is an outstanding collection.

She said this as well:

James Caruth’s remarkable poems are unlike anyone else’s. They are knowing and disingenuous at the same time, clear-eyed and romantic.

One of the poems from that collection is Lethe. It’s poem that has always stuck like a burr in my mind,  eliding a mythic Underworld with a salmon that leaps from a silver pool, and the entry into Hades of a shell-shocked, flustered woman with a harmless life of small sins of omission, who cannot remember the name of the Ferryman

her face pale as a clock / her wide eyes emptying.

It makes a strong connection for me with Narrow Water, a collection  whose monochrome palette is that of Don McCullin’s photographs and Norman Ackroyd’s etchings, and with the same accuracy of vision. In its landscapes of stone and water and cold wind one trope is constant, and it’s that of separations as narrow as those between the dead and the living, the present and the past. There’s a haunting phrase…a book title in fact. it’s Conrad’s…… that comes to mind. The shadow line. It makes me think of Rothko’s shimmering canvasses. And also of the space of cold silver between the solid land and the fluid shifting water that you see when you look across a big sea loch, or at a headland. It’s that intangible narrow separation that comes to mind.

As Jim Caruth says in Rain God:


On days like this the slippage of a soul

might go unnoticed and I can’t summon

the faithfulness to live in the future tense.

Along with poetry in my pocket,

I carry a little hope.


I’ll come back to this note of something that I can only think of as a deeply spiritual agnosticism. But to get to the heart of the collection I go to the title poem, and all its complex layers. The Narrow Water of the poem is is the lough below Slieve Foy, separating it from the Mournes of Ulster, its

skyline bleeding like a bad engraving

It’s a place of deep division

from the first scour of ice

this place has known violence

and also a shore where the poet remembers holidays, the rows of caravans, and being

mesmerised by this narrow strip of water ,  where he asks the unnerving question:

Was this our Styx where we passed over.

The subtitle of the poem should alert the reader:

i.m. 27th August 1979.

To look across the narrow water is to look across to a different world, from Ulster to Eire, at the beginning of ‘the Troubles’. This place has known violence, going back to the Viking longboats rounding the point. Every name is redolent with dark histories

Warrenpoint, Rosetrevor, Kilkeel.

Little towns comfortable in their anonymity

where momentous events go unrecorded.

I still imagine the small front parlours,

teacups rattling on china plates,

the sudden screel of a bird

an ancient echoing

Warrenpoint was the place of the IRA ambush that killed more British soldiers than any other single attack. Two RUC men were shot dead in their patrol car at Rosetrevor. Kilkeel has a long history of violent sectarian division. The poet says

given time, water alters everything


we dig our past out of a drowned bog,

read runes in bones washed up on the tide

but as I read, I suspect that the little towns comfortable in their anonymity/ where momentous events go unrecorded stay buttoned up, like the men and women of his childhood, the men particularly, who kept words locked away…./….hide in small rooms.

These people are soothsayers, says Jim Caruth in  Latitudes;  doom-merchants, conjuringold slights in a hurl of words

I’ll say straight off that it’s not ‘the Troubles’ that are at the heart of Narrow Water, but the separations of which the ‘Troubles’ are only one. I’d say too that though the landscapes are predominantly those of Northern Island, the collection has a much wider range, emotionally and geographically, and follows its emigrants across a much wider water in a group of poems centred on New York. I chose to print  one in full because it illustrates very beautifully what Carole Ann Duffy wrote about Jim’s poetry: knowing and disingenuous at the same time, clear-eyed and romantic. ‘Clear-eyed’ is the phrase I seize on. It’s the eye for the moment and its textures.

Play the harp backwards meets that criterion of Clive James about the image, the moment that makes the poem. When I was reading  background for the post, I came across this documentary photograph. It’s as exact, as balanced and true as the poem

Play the harp backwards

Who taught them to sling bridges from wires,

to walk straight-backed as convent girls,

along the narrow girders of high towers,

backs to the wind, never daring to look down.


Clustered in the tenements of Brooklyn

and the Lower East Side, like raucous gulls

lining the white hem of a small island

whose name comes in a half-remembered tongue.


At nights you’d find them in the bars

along the waterfront, reciting a catechism

of names as they listened to the old songs,

while outside snow fell on the desolate streets

and the Hudson heaved like a wounded animal.


When the money ran out, they fingered

the dust in their pockets, staggered home

to small rooms, to dream of a mail-boat

rounding the Head, a town shivering

in the yellow glow of street-lamps.


There’s not a foot put wrong.  It’s a poem as deft and confident as the high-wire scaffolders and rivetters who built Manhattan. The images  nail it down:

straight-backed as convent girls;      

like raucous gulls / lining the white hem of a small island;     

the Hudson heaved like a wounded animal.

Here’s the history of a place and of a people caught in a moment in time, on the white hem of a small island, on the edge of narrow waters, unable to leave the past they are spiritually and emotionally bound to. There’s a phrase in another poem, The emigrant’s farewell, that catches this mood exactly:

Somewhere out there is a language of loss

but I have no words for this. 

There’s a paradox to savour! Because this collection is written with a deftness and confidence of language that marks it as special and memorable. In Latitudes,  the observation is as sure as MacCaig’s, and as accurate

The coast road is sleek with kelp.

On the seafront, pastel coloured

lightbulbs sag on a wire


In Apostle, which is a hymn to an old man brought down by dementia there’s this beautifully textured image of the wife gently washing his back at the kitchen sink, as (I suppose) a grandchild watches

she bathed the white flesh

of his back. a ripple of ribs

showing through like a frost

on the roof of a coal shed

That combination of texture (a ripple of ribs) , lovely fragility (frost) and the solidly mundane ( the coal shed’s corrugated iron roof) is beautifully and apparently effortlessly achieved.

In those last weeks he never offered

a single word to anyone but God

The poet remembers him again in the Prado, as

 Ribera’s St Andrew, half naked

and lost in thoughts of heaven.


There’s a great tenderness in these poems, where you may encounter James Joyce, and Munch and Tom Eliot among the people who live by the narrow waters, and where there could just be a bridge where  hope spans the narrows /wind sings in the cables. The note of rigorously honest and spiritual agnosticism.

One more thing. With Jim Caruth it’s a voice that commands the attention and then the poem that justifies it. I’ll not take up your time with my thing about the unfair advantages of the Irish [North and South] when it comes to poetry. The dramas of their history and its terrible deprivations, the strangeness of their mythologies and folktales, the iconography of Catholicism and the transgressive disciplines of priests and nuns….and the voice, the accents. Enough to say that Jim has a voice, like Heaney, that you simply want to listen to, and that you go on hearing in his poetry when you lift it off the page. Think of Heaney and you’ll not go far wrong.


“Jim Caruth’s writing balances risk against hope and hope against experience. The place names and landmarks of Northern Ireland dot a collection where deep time and deep water are often close at hand. This is a gentle, humane and philosophical account of a life lived thoughtfully.” Jo Bell

Narrow water : Poetry Salzburg  [Pamphlet Series 24. 2017]








4 thoughts on “Well-found. A review of James Caruth’s “Narrow water”

  1. Thank you, John, for this lovely post. I’m bone tired of winter too, but since joining in this poetry writing business, I have found more substance to live off through winter and your weekly bakes are a big chunk of my fare! Always something nourishing in moments of feeling down in the dumps or exuberant or just curious!



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