Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: 'Treading Water' By Ian Humphreys

Ian Humphreys
Ian Humphreys
Treading Water

When I find myself slipping, I hold on
and remember what the canal taught me:
No journey is a straight line.
The last time we walked here together,

I reminded you that not long ago this canal
cut a dark scar through the Pennines, from Manchester
to Sowerby Bridge. Its future slippery, almost sunk.
But look at it now, you said. Look at the colours.

On a picnic bench by The Stubbing Wharf, you slipped
breaded scampi from your plate to mine. You always
ordered too much when eating out, loved to share
your good luck with family. I remember your smile.

I told you how horses hauled the cargo-heavy boats
back in the 1800s. How a wise farrier adapted the U
of a horseshoe with spiked nails to grip the towpath’s wet stone,
avoid slippage, fatalities. Steady now. I remember you

smiling at that first slip of water over wood at Lock 11.
It can take an eternity to fill a void. Look at the ferns thriving
deep in the chamber wall, how they hold firm,
soft fingers outstretched, drowned, until the flood recedes

and the sun revives them. I remember your love
for these brightly painted narrowboats, the way they garland
the canal bank like festival lanterns. Listen to the jackdaws.
Coal-black blurs slipping and tumbling above

the old mill chimney, their laughter echoing in its throat.
But where is our kingfisher? She must be close, waiting
to slip from a willow tree, to swoop and sip
her blue reflection, lighting up the day like a smile.



Ian Humphreys' exquisitely simple and profoundly beautiful elegy is addressed to his mother who, some time subsequent to the Calder Valley walk he describes, was diagnosed with dementia.

By another measure a hymn to the ministry of water – the poem was commissioned by the Poetry Society and Canal & River Trust – ‘Treading Water’ embarks on a journey of re-association and recall as circuitous, and often counter-intuitive, as the navigation of a canal. Life, and waterways, do not proceed in a uniformly linear manner, as the poem, and poet remind us:

‘A key theme is how no journey is a straight line – canals meander more than we imagine. Another is rebirth and hope – the Rochdale Canal’s historical journey has been unpredictable, from industrial innovation to dumping ground to nature sanctuary’.

And in a sense, the poem’s freeform use of colour, and detail observed en passant, mirror the mind’s gradual abandonment to Alzheimer’s – the flashes of surprising insight, the sudden awarenesses are backlit by the ‘festival lanterns’ and ‘garlands’ which make up the architecture of distant memory. For the poet is re-orientating a mind now succumbed, by drawing on a shared experience as much as on the necessarily hidden purlieus of his mother’s past. Infused with, protected by, a barely-concealed love, Humphreys’ gentle, modulated quatrains rediscover the hinterland of Hebden Bridge’s arterial waterway as though rebuilding a life well lived.

His narrative’s journey is realised at the recumbent pace of a narrowboat’s trans-Pennine odyssey, taking in the incidental detail that might disturb the metaphorical impulse of the bargee as much as of the poet: the first ‘slip’ of water in the iron-slow process of lock fill, the outstretched fingers of the ‘ferns thriving / deep in the chamber wall’, are themselves chambers of distilled meaning, and are entirely characteristic of Humphreys’ highly visual and recognitive poetics.

The poet’s feeling for place, and history of place, are as palpable as Jeffrey Wainwright’s; his sense of occupation, direction and purpose as fulsome as his love for the mother who must soon leave him behind. The direct nature of his address – ‘Look at the colours’, ‘Look at the ferns’, ‘Steady now’ – draws his poetic audience into a charmed family circle where the interior world to which his mother eventually retreats will remain alive with memory, and the tokens of having once been present whilst the alchemy of heimat unfolded, are graven in perpetuity.

The narrator's own proclivity for introspective ‘slippage’ – the canal’s dark stillness is a perfect metaphor for voidal descent – is relieved, everywhere, by the sun’s reviving powers, by the ferns’ tenacity, and finally by the oblivious kingfisher whose swooping and aquamarine reflection illuminate the day like a reminder. That Ian Humphreys lost his mother to Covid-19 in April lends his deeply affecting poem an almost unbearable poignancy.


‘Treading Water’ was commissioned by The Poetry Society and Canal & River Trust.

More at www.waterlines.org.uk

All Images of the Rochdale Canal by Ian Humphreys