‘Belonging’ and ‘estrangement’ are key terms when getting to grips with Rory Waterman’s poetry. They played an explicitly pivotal role in his early years, but his work has implicitly carried on worrying away at their connotations, interpretations and ramifications ever since. On the one hand, Waterman’s poems have been gaining new layers; on the other, they’ve been burrowing ever more deeply into the core of his inspiration.
To start with, they were invoked, for instance, in the title of his doctoral thesis (Belonging and Estrangement in the Poetry of Philip Larkin, R.S. Thomas and Charles Causley, Routledge, 2014), and also made an appearance on the back cover to his first full collection, Tonight the Summer’s Over (Carcanet, 2013). In that aforementioned collection, Waterman portrayed the tensions of his childhood, homing in on conflicts of familial, national and cultural identity. Several pieces pivoted around the filial relationship, striking up an implicit dialogue between Waterman’s verse and that of his father, Andrew Waterman. Andrew had written a poem titled ‘To my son’, an extract of which reads as follows:
…I walk again this curve of strand, a shine of wet on firm gold sand blanked by 500 tides since you knelt watching Daddy as I drew a little boy, inscribed your name: RORY WAS HERE. Here looks the same: dunes, headlands, ocean charged with light as then, rippling to its long white ribbon of foam, where bubbles break in millions for each breath I take...
Rory replied in Tonight the Summer’s Over with ‘To my Father’:
…At two I’d not grown used to anywhere. By five the squat stone houses, leafy streets of Dunston, rural Lincolnshire was where my life was, if for better or worse. The court heard our recording and agreed. And Lincoln was a blessing and a curse, where Daddy lived each month, and lived with me.
The father desperately wanted the son to feel Irish, while the son tried and failed. Meanwhile, in another poem, ‘On Derry City Walls’, the father taught Irish songs, but the son sang them in ‘pure Lincoln’. The father-son poems in the younger Waterman’s Tonight the Summer’s Over were very much focused on childhood, placing their protagonists at moments from the – sometimes distant – past. However, by his third collection, Sweet Nothings (Carcanet, 2020), this timeframe has shifted.
Sweet Nothings includes a tour-de-force long poem, titled ‘Like Father’, which deserves to linger long in critics’ and readers’ minds. Its perspective is contemporary, as is immediately announced in the note that precedes it: Started 2000, finished 2019. These few words are a clear statement of intent to draw a line under the past from the viewpoint of the present, an aim reinforced by the poem’s closing lines:
…And I was trying to be like him – a bit, in fewer and fewer ways – and started a poem and this is it.
Again, Waterman is acutely aware of the role of each poem in the context of those that precede it. There’s a clear nod here towards his earlier piece, along with a declaration of rupture. At this point, it’s worth retreading those two terms, ‘belonging’ and ‘estrangement’, as in the poem ‘Like Father’ they take on fresh connotations, the protagonist of the poem now revindicating his own personal, individual identity.
However, Waterman’s gradual exploration of the two terms doesn’t start and end at the personal level. Instead, one of the principal values of Sweet Nothings as a collection is the way Waterman demonstrates his development as a poet by exploring them in further, complementary manners, specifically in terms of the position of the individual in the context of society and wider nationality. In this respect, his second collection, Sarajevo Roses (Carcanet, 2017), had already marked a point of departure, showing us a poet in transit in thematic and aesthetic terms. Trips around Europe, for example, found Waterman examining the relationship between the personal and these new surroundings, as in ‘The Brides of Castell de Belver’:
…you joked and moved, I thought, closer to me as another couple stepped out, their business done…
However, Sweet Nothings takes a decisive step forward, situating the individual in the context of wider events. One such example can be found in ‘Vergina Suns’…
…He tried his English with un-English zeal while we waited: 'Nottingeham Forest, Your Queeen, Your Brrexit '…
This invocation of stereotypes, of how nationalities view each other, of how the protagonist’s life in the UK relates to those in other countries, provides another example of Waterman’s acute self-awareness, a casting of new light on his nagging old concerns of ‘belonging’ and ‘estrangement’.
The same is true of Waterman’s eye when it returns to the UK and evokes wider society, using a character, Dr Bob Pintle, who previously made a brief appearance in Sarajevo Roses and now has a whole sequence to himself. First things first: once more, there’s clear consciousness of context, on this occasion reflecting on the poet’s place in the canon. In other words, when Waterman writes in Sweet Nothings about a frustrated academic who struggles with the system and UK society, he knows full well that he’s following in the footsteps of Kingsley Amis and David Lodge, yanking them into present-day concerns, as in the following extract from ‘Final Years’:
For years and years, Pintle blew annual dust off turgid lectures, was happy to earn his crust from gobbets he’d once committed to memory – but now the culture’s changed. His new VC has various agendas: 'Globalisation' (foreign students), 'Employability' and, just for him, a new 'Professionalisation Of Writing' module…
Moreover, in Sweet Nothings, Waterman carries this exploration of wider, societal concerns still further, especially in terms of class and masculinity. The latter is exquisitely examined in ‘Alfreton Town 0, Brackley Town 1, (89’)’ in which the first person is an observer:
…but I’m on the terrace, with 64 others, where a bloke in a tank-top and built like a tank turns to the dug-out and breaks the near-silence: 'Cheynge it ip, Billeh boy – we’re fukkin’ wank'…
It’s impossible to read this poem without thinking of D.H. Lawrence, a writer who not only lived and wrote nearby, but who was also conscious of the difficulty in empathising with and writing about people of a different social class. Nevertheless, Waterman doesn’t just limit himself to playing the role of the observer. In other poems, he teases out the tensions between individuals of different social backgrounds, as in the closing lines of ‘Cold Calling’ from the sequence ‘University of Life’:
… 'Best ignore', said Pat, our head of team, who spunked his earnings on watches, phones and cars and weekend clubbing, living a sort of dream I couldn’t share and learned I could’ve shared if only I had cared. Or hadn’t cared.
In technical terms, this poem ends with a flourish that’s characteristic of several excellent poems in Sweet Nothings: its penultimate sentence is long, hurtling onwards, only to be brought up short by an abrupt, often grammatically curtailed, closing sentence. The musical flow of Waterman’s previous lines is arrested and their certainty is undermined, as if the poet were wryly mocking his own lyricism.
Rory Waterman’s three collections, from Tonight the Summer’s Over, through Sarajevo Roses and on to Sweet Nothings, demonstrate the progressive strengthening and broadening of his writing (a development without renunciation of previous work) alongside the absorbing of influences into a method and approach that are unique in contemporary UK poetry. His achievement has been to take two terms – belonging and estrangement – that had highly personal ramifications, and expand them into a coherent and cohesive vision, inviting his readers to ponder their own roles in their lives. This is a poet who’s approaching the height of his powers.