A Dutch friend of mine, Coen Wessel, commissioned me to write a poem about an exhibition of shirts he was showing in Utrecht. Coen's concept was to create a baptismal shirt rather than a hair shirt. I liked the idea of this, the idea of a shirt which would protect its wearer, which would always fit. I like the conceits of metaphysical poets and thought the idea of a shirt of water would suit the baptismal theme. Around that time, I was in St. Ives and overheard a woman say 'I dread to hear the running of feet in this town'; she was talking about the volunteer lifeboat crew running to man the boat.

The Shirt

(for Coen Wessel)

As we’re born thirsty,
in a breaking sac of water,
which splits and spills,
reforming in cloud spray,
springs and ditches,
so, Coen, let’s say this shirt
is made of water, and that we put it on
whenever we swim in woodland lakes,
with rushes pulling at our legs,
and smell that twiggy effervescence
on our skin.
A shirt of water can be
mud brown, or striped by navy and sky,
turquoise patterned by sunfish and weeds,
patched by dark shapes,
a geography of underwater boulders
that cools its cloth as we pass over
or warms us in the lull of sand bars.
Whatever fabric water mimics,
it always fits us, growing with our arms
and chest, stretching round our crawl
or breast stroke.
In this shirt, with its fluid seams,
we’ll swim up mountain rivers
as they zig-zag downwards.
We’ll leap and fly up waterfalls.
We’ll pull round headlands
against the current of a spring tide.
When coastguards shake their heads and sigh,
we’ll swim back towards the town
where, somewhen earlier, the running
of feet and the calling of sirens
echoed in the lanes, streets, squares,
and the yellowcoated fishermen
will haul us in,
thinking we own a magic caul.
They’ll nod and murmur, ‘lucky, lucky’,
and offer us rough towels and tea
from flasks. Though they rub us dry
in the fishy air,
they won’t see the shirt
that has thinned to a mist,
the shirt we’ll still be wearing
that made us believe, with each stroke,
we could live.

from Hidden River (Bloodaxe Books, 2008) © Stephanie Norgate 2008, used by permission of the author and the publisher

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