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Monday, 1 August 2011

William Letford on Rory Waterman's 'Family Business'

Family Business by Rory Waterman

The boatman stares through million-pock-marked waters,
tapping a cigarette, shying from the rain
in mac and wellies, beneath a London plane
that rustles and drips. He turns and tells his daughter
to bolt the hut. Tonight the summer’s over.
He heaves the skiff to the boatshed, ties the lines
and double-locks the door. She fits a sign:
CLOSED FOR SEESON. They load a battered Land-Rover
with cash-tin, radio, stools, as fast as they can,
for it’s raining harder. Lightning blanks the dark,
and then they’re away, the wiper thwacking its arc.
She glances at this ordinary man
then shuts her eyes: she’s damp and tired and bored.
He drives more gently. Neither says a word.
from New Poetries V © Rory Waterman

When commenting on form, measure, and other technical apparatus, Frank O’Hara put it down to common sense, ‘If you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will go to bed with you.’ This sonnet needn’t worry about the lonely nights.

For me the poem kicks on the eighth line, CLOSED FOR SEESON. Why the spelling mistake? Is it to highlight ignorance, to degrade the father and daughter, both of whom, it seems, have spent a summer passing the sign without correcting the error? Is it humour at the expense of simple people? Obviously this is not the case. There is, however, something simplistic about the father and daughter’s lifestyle. When closing up, ‘They load a battered Land-Rover / with cash tin, radio, stools, as fast as they can’. Few businesses could close for the year and transport what’s necessary in two hands. ‘He turns and tells his daughter / to bolt the hut. Tonight the summer's over,’ a wonderful proclamation, almost biblical. They’re moving with the seasons, in step with nature. This, paired with the impending storm, gives the poem tension, an otherworldly feel.

Having kicked on the eighth line, the poem pivots on the eleventh, ‘Lightning blanks the dark, / and then they’re away, the wiper thwacking its arc’, strong use of sound and imagery, and a succinct, powerful way to move the action from beneath the storm to the safety of the car.

The final three lines reveal the heart of the poem. ‘She glances at this ordinary man / then shuts her eyes: She’s damp and tired and bored. / He drives more gently. Neither says a word.’ Like the misspelling of season the word ‘ordinary’ leaps at the reader (me). An ordinary man, is that an insult? The word is softened when the father intuitively responds, by driving more gently, to his daughter’s tiredness. Something has been captured here. How many times has this scenario played out over the years, over the centuries, the word ‘ordinary’ is the daughter’s. It’s how she views her father, her stifled life. We know she’s loved by the way her father responds to her mood / glance. How old is this girl? Is summer over for the business, the daughter, or the father? Perhaps for all three. And so the sense of the poem continues beyond the last line.

This isn’t about business, how much money is in their cash tin, whether or not they’re maximising profits, whether or not the sign has been spelled correctly. It’s about family, the business of the family. Real business.


  1. Lovely comments, William!

    Perhaps there's an extra comment hidden in "SEESON", viz. "SEE SON". A son that is missing perhaps, the son he never had, or perhaps the son who has left home, the son that used to help his dad with the boating venture in the past and who wouldn't have been bored or tired and wouldn't have minded the pace of the car so much?

  2. That previous comment wasn't meant to be anonymous. I was having trouble accessing my Google-ID.

    While I'm on again, let me point out that there are some paronomastics evident, as defined by Harmon in Connotations (1992), i.e. where the author supplies his own name in the text playfully. The poem starts: "The boatman...", and the line ends "...waters," The boat belongs to the water; it is the water's = Water's man => Waterman’s.

    Now look to the end of the poem. The slant rhyme of "bored" and "word" can be matched by the words "roared" and "heard"., i.e. which gives us the first syllable in Rory. The penultimate line ends “...bored”, and the final line begins “He...”, i.e. the first and second syllables of Rory. Then “more gently” repeats these sounds of ‘or-ee’. (With a “gent” in the middle.)

    I am by no means suggesting that the author has supplied these paronomastic features more than semi-consciously at most. I would claim, however, based on work I have done with paronomastics in the elegies Douglas Dunn has written, that there seems to be a tendency for some authors to find solace in the expression of their own names in poems written in an elegiac mode.

    There's also something going on with the extra '-s' or missing '-s' in "waters/daughter" and in "lines/sign". This extra '-s' or missing '-s' could be a cryptic reference to the extra son or missing son mentioned above.

    Duncan Gillies MacLaurin

  3. Of course, SEESON could be an example of slack proof-reading in these straitened times...

  4. I believe that your comment is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Michael. Nevertheless, this is just to confirm that Rory Waterman has seen this post, and if what you suggest were the case, I'm certain he would have pointed it out to us.