An Analysis of ‘On the Black Canal’ by Helen Tookey

Your boat is moored on the black canal
and the woman is playing the cello for you,

long low notes the colour of crows’ wings.
You are a sound-box, air vibrates inside your bones

as each note elongates, a dark expanse –
are you under her protection, or is it a baffle

she draws around you, words becoming lost
in the rasp of bow against wire, your skull

full of overtones. Where were you trying to go that day
as you crossed the fields when the planes came,

droning low, forcing you down with the weight
of the sound in your head – you lay it seemed

for hours, pressed to the earth, unable to move
till the sound cleared, the weight eased

from your bones and you ran, away from
the terror of air, the fields’ aphasic spaces.

Where were you going? You can’t remember, and now
you’re moored in the long box of your boat, and the woman

is playing the cello for you, the sound closing
over your head like black water, like crows’ wings.

Poets, Various. The Forward Book of Poetry 2019 (Kindle Locations 1714-1729). Forward Arts Foundation. Kindle Edition.

Analysis

On the Black Canal can be interpreted to be about a myriad of different things. To me, I believe it is a piece that represents death but on the first glance, I thought it was about depression and the negative feelings of sorrow.

In the introduction which states ‘Your boat is moored on the black canal’ acts as a metaphor for a coffin that is anchored like a boat in the canal. The word moored emphasises the boat imagery but to reinforce the funeral ambience we are introduced to a woman playing the cello for the deceased.

How do we know that the person in this piece is deceased?

Firstly we know they are deceased because the piece is written in second person. This gives us the ambience of a speech almost resembling a eulogy. Through the use of ‘you’ and ‘your’ we get a sense of distance and less impersonal tone almost as distant and stark as death.

Secondly the imagery of death is weaved into this piece. For instance, the use of the words such as:

‘Black Canal’

colour of crows’ wings.


pressed to the earth,

you ran, away from
the terror of air, the fields

Another compelling aspect of this poem is the rhetorical questions that the reader cannot answer, the writer did not tell and the subjects did not reveal. This includes the repeated questions of

are you under her protection, or is it a baffle

Where were you trying to go that day
as you crossed the fields when the planes came,

Where were you going?

To conclude, I find the use of repetition of the subject matter at the beginning and the end of the piece very dynamic. This repetition adds to the solemnness of this piece.

I also find it compelling that the free verse aspect of this poem also resembles water when it reflects almost like a ripple caused by a ‘boat/coffin’ moored on a body of water.

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