Watching for Dolphins

What does it mean, beyond the simple delight at your own good luck, to look out of your window at the River Tay, and see dolphins swimming past? Or, as happened to me once last year, to pick up the little telescope my father had lent me, train it on the Tayport side of the river, and immediately see a dolphin leaping from the water?

Certainly there’s surprise mixed with the delight – enough to send you running to the end of the pier to stand among the blasé anglers, who have seen it already and are slightly disgruntled that you’re interfering with their casting. Certainly the luck in itself trumps your ordinary goals and intentions – that important call you were making, how easily it can be cast aside! Among people less ready to be blasé, it leads in an instant to a small society of the fortunate.

I was over in Tayport last summer, where the dolphins come much closer to shore (no jet skis), and the folk walking their dogs or just walking were all suddenly exclaiming – sharing their excitement to see one glide before them – much as, back in the Ferry, I’d interrupted my phonecall to run and see the dolphins’ fins sweeping past, their noses and backs breaking the surface regularly, whether they intended to fish or play or explore, whether socially or territorially. Who knows, in the moment of seeing, why they’re here?

And what does it mean for me, who thirty years ago wrote about the dolphins in my early poems in Dundonian Scots as ‘gairfish’, symbols of conceptual freedom that reflected my newly formed political beliefs, my nascent theories about mind and language? After all, I’d very much idealised them as expressions of psychological freedom from notions of property and reification, locating them specifically in this river, the Tay, as a counter to the intellectual and spiritual doldrums Thatcherism was imposing on Dundee.

The city itself was equally a symbol for me of the precise opposite: stolidity v. fluidity, surface v. depth, the polis already fallen from within, as evidenced by its self-destruction of its own historical heritage, its ready acceptance of the next industry and the next, each set of ‘masters’ exploiting and further degrading its citizens’ expectations and sensibilities.

All very neat – except I hadn’t actually seen any dolphins in the Tay ever in that thirty year period. I’d looked, walking the long beach in my twenties as I’d always done, walking our dog for the miles that put the observed details of my world together with the words I was reconceiving, misremembering, or pulling from dictionaries. I’d even written about the looking, the not finding. But, like many of the symbols in which we invest so much meaning, so much time and even yearning, the experience, the witnessing, was withheld.

After ten years I wasn’t so idealistic, caught up in the practicalities of family and career. After twenty, I just wasn’t so around. On the one hand, what we call symbols submit themselves to what we call facts and are revised, and on the other, when the self and the world stubbornly fail to be transformed, the very neatness of symbolic systems begins to seem a removed perfection, something that subtly encourages disengagement, rather than committing us to identify what could be a significant action.

Then, maybe five, ten years too late, I came back. I rented a flat that looked directly out onto the Tay, and, for long weekends at least, sat at its window first thing in the morning, throughout the day, and late into the evening. I took photos, made notes, and thought about thinking. After a month, the dolphins came. Not often – maybe three times in total, including that trip to Tayport, but there they actually were.

It felt, not like a return to my twenties, but like a reviewing of my imaginative matrix. This was as much a discovery (the symbolic name of Scott’s ship, which in my thirties was transferred to the city as a whole in an effort to will it out of its eighties’ doldrums) as a rediscovery of that matrix. The self-critique had, after all, been going on for years. This was alarmingly like the thing itself.

Everything was simultaneously new and a continuity. I even began sketching out a couple of new Doldrums – though now what was regarded as in stasis were those aspects of unfinished imaginative business the old symbols retained: the bridge, the river, the graveyard, each yielding new angles on old processes.

And I watched the river, almost compulsively, while noting the movements of its birds – the gliding in of ten or twenty swans each morning into the shelter of the harbour; the hovering of exploded clouds of gulls when the wind was strong or bread was on offer; the perpetually startled cry of oystercatchers; the occasional curlew on my new favourite walk along to the Stannergate; the heron, stalking the shallows in darkness as my father dropped me off at the flat after dinner.

Through all this avian foreground, I was ‘watching for dolphins’, in David Constantine’s phrase (from the eponymous poem which, as much as anything, had stirred the imagination in my first case of romanticism with a small ‘r’). Every wavetop darkened by the disposition of the light could be a fin, a breathing shrug. At any moment another full breaching could occur, directly in front of me or at the corners of my vision.

It was like watching for lightning that night in the middle of last summer when the thunder announced its approach and a squall of rain indicated its arrival: I knew it would happen but more often than not I was looking away when it did, usually making a note. And yet I saw it once: the lightning stroke over the river, directly across from my window, like a giant momentary letter, written on the darkness, meteorology suddenly translated into God’s calligraphy.

Equally, the glimpse of an aquatic mammal in its seasonal migration down the coast to this estuary stubbornly retains its symbolic hint at some form of the sublime. It is slow lightning, and I’m moved to write about it as I’m moved to write about the river, the bridges, the graveyard, the storm, the birds.

There are of course poets who think that you don’t just move on from such avatars as the Yeats of the wild swans, or the Olson of the polis, but that, having moved on, you can or rather should no longer write about them. Or, if you must revisit, then displacing the form must also displace the ideology behind it. As if, knowing what we know now, about politics, ecology, theory, writing about these things in whatever form could somehow still be the same old writing – or as if such moving ‘on’ was simply a willed thing, an actual direction, another stylistic decision, however necessary.

There are, of course, poets, who having thought through these processes, consider it better not to write at all, but to generate text by other means that touches on such matters if at all, if read correctly, as radical critique.

These writer plead impatiently with the reade: let the willed signification of the anecdotal, with its rigid observational method and its reflex reach for meaning through the tired mechanisms of metaphor and melopoeia, die out like religion. Stop teaching it on writing programmes, they demand, stop reanimating the carcass of the dead lyric, in the sure and certain belief that faith in such things will fade away.

But I saw the dolphins again yesterday morning – most likely porpoises, as they looked black against the waves – just off the stone pier just outside my window, three or four, moving upriver I thought, then I saw one leap by the timber end of the pier that encloses the little curve of beach I’ve been living beside for these last thirteen months, and realised they were circling the area of river directly in front of me.

And as it leapt I felt the first stab of unqualified joy I’d experienced since the death of my father almost three months ago: there it was, for the seconds the creature was in the air – I felt it, recognised my reaction to it, understood its transience, and tried to let it go as the dolphin returned to its usual medium. What was that? An anecdote? If I wrote about it, would it become a redundant joy, a reactionary echo?

It seemed to me to be part of the joy that it was at once simple, an animal delight such as we imagine dogs experience, and complex, innately symbolic, in the way we like to think dolphins think. Meaning must have both elements at once for us, and meaning is not what we make of what happens, it is how it happens. Whether we can conceive of it or not, we cannot experience a meaningless joy, even if we then spend thirty years trying to determine what that meaning was and is now, and, of course, what we meant and mean by meaning anyway.

For the moment, I know what I mean by meaning: it’s sitting here watching the water and the swans, a fisherman already on the pier, a crow on top of the black wrought iron lamppost as if part of its design, the clouds gliding over but not clouding over the blue of the River Tay in June, thinking about my unfulfillable desire to tell my father what I saw, and, for a few more minutes at least, between checking the internet and deciding about breakfast, watching for dolphins.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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2 Responses to Watching for Dolphins

  1. Brian Holton says:

    This spring as I drove past the meeting of Ettrick and Tweed, I turned my head to just see a salmon in mid-leap, the perfect fish-hook curve of it silhouetted against the shining water. An epiphanic instant, a clean and clear part of my long goodbye to my lost twin.

  2. PoetJanstie says:

    It is always a matter of how much in control we are of what’s going on in our mind, isn’t it? How full it is (the mind, that is) of the cluttered stuff of life – family, career and so forth – or how empty it is or how tuned our neural receptors (or whatever they’re called) are to our environment. The affect of age (and retirement) has been, for me, at the same time busy and clarifying. This is a wonderful and refreshing visit to what always seems to be (for us it certainly is) a special experience. Dolphins are the symbol of freedom, joy, hope, animal intelligence and grace outside of human experience.

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