Birmingham River


Where’s Birmingham river? Sunk.
Which river was it? Two. More or less.

History: we’re on our tribal ground. When they
moved in from the Trent, the first English

entered the holdings and the bodies of the people
who called the waters that kept them alive

Tame, the Dark River, these English spread their works
southward then westward, then all ways

for thirty-odd miles, up to the damp tips of the thirty-odd
weak headwaters of the Tame. By all of the Tame

they settled, and sat, named themselves after it:
Tomsaetan. And back down at Tamworth, where the river

almost began to amount to something,
the Mercian kings kept their state. Dark

because there’s hardly a still expanse of it
wide enough to catch the sky, the Dark River

mothered the Black Country and all but
vanished underneath it, seeping out from the low hills

by Dudley, by Upper Gornal, by Sedgley, by
Wolverhamptom, by Bloxwich, dropping morosely

without a shelf or a race or a dip,
no more than a few feet every mile, fattened

a little from mean streams that join at
Tipton, Bilston, Willenhall, Darlaston,

Oldbury, Wednesbury. From Bescot
She oozes a border round Handsworth

where I was born, snakes through the flat
meadows that turned into Perry Barr,

passes through Witton, heading for the city
but never getting there. A couple of miles out

she catches the timeless, suspended
scent of Nechells and Saltley—coal gas,

sewage, smoke—turns and makes off
for Tamworth, caught on the right shoulder

by the wash that’s run under Birmingham,
a slow, petty river with no memory of an ancient

name; a river called Rea, meaning river,
and misspelt at that. Before they merge

they’re both steered straight, in channels
that force them clear of the gasworks. And the Tame

gets marched out of town in the policed calm
that hangs under the long legs of the M6.

These living rivers
turgidly watered the fields, gave

drink; drove low-powered mills, shoved
the Soho Works into motion, collected waste

and foul waters. Gave way to steam,
collected sewage, factory poisons. Gave way

to clean Welsh water, kept on collecting
typhoid. Sank out of sight

under streets, highways, the black walls of workshops;
collected metals, chemicals, aquicides. Ceased

to draw lines that weren’t cancelled or unwanted; became
drains, with no part in anybody’s plan.

from The Long and the Short of It: Poems 1955-2005 (Bloodaxe, 2005), copyright © Roy Fisher 2005, used by permission of the author.

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