Remembering Rockpools

Ursula Glendinning, MA student in English

What do rockpools mean to us? How do we remember them? How might the act of looking into tidal pools help us to engage mindfully with the non-human world? These are just a few of the questions raised by Suzannah V. Evans’s workshop on rockpool poetry held in early November. 

Byssus: Jen Hadfield: 9781447241102: Books


We are sat in a small room in the Folkhouse, just off Park Street in Bristol, surrounded by various volumes of poetry that focus on coastal environments and, in particular, rockpools. Next to each seat is a shell: razor clams, scallops, dog whelks, even an Iceland cyprine, are dotted along the perimeter of the table. 

I have come here to learn more about how to write the strange creatures of tidal pools – an interest recently discovered whilst reading for an introductory seminar earlier this year. The works of Isabel Galleymore, Mary Oliver, Jen Hadfield, and many others, have inspired a bit of an obsession and, encouraged by my lecturers, I have found and am now attending a rockpool poetry workshop.  

Each of us holds a shell in our hand and, closing our eyes, we see with our fingers – exploring the tactile pleasure of running our thumbs over smooth indentations and jagged edges. Suzannah asks us to construct our own rockpool, and in a large bowl intended to hold planted flowers, we ritualistically scatter sand, and place, within the nest of stone, the shells we have been cradling. Each of us pours in a bit of water, chanting the words we have chosen to describe the shells – smooth, winged, serrated, meditative. We laugh and regret the placement of a tinfoil sardine: the concoction admittedly looks a bit like a fish stew.  


Ostensibly, the rockpool is a site of extraction. Most of us have childhood memories of picking through the residents of these watery worlds. Which one is the biggest? The shiniest? The most colourful? But the workshop, and my subsequent studies, helped me to see the ethics of rockpooling beyond this perspective. Careful attention to rockpools changes our physical positionality as observers. Rather than looking up at a mountain, gearing for an excursion and eventual conquest, the participant must stoop until they are almost level with the water’s surface. The practice invites a meditative state, a quietness; we sit and observe, asking for nothing in return. 

However, rockpooling is an increasingly endangered pastime. Throughout the workshop, I, and the other attendees, were uncomfortably aware of the emerging threat to rockpools and coastal life in general. We spoke of rising sea levels, loss of species, and shorelines used, abused, and neglected until they become places of rot and pollution. The poems we produced contained an aroma of nostalgia as well as barely stifled anger for these increasingly depleted habitats.  

My current project involves a study of the liveliness of dead crabs in modern and contemporary poetry, looking at May Swenson, Mark Doty and more. I intend to explore how these poets represent the animacies of decay through the speakers’ exploration of intertidal regions. The poems I have chosen are achingly sensual and balance both profound sadness and wonder. Suzannah V. Evan’s workshop provided a vital foundation for this exploration, and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity by Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities to further my new obsession with rockpools alongside her and the other participants.  

Uncommon Ground – Jack Thacker

Reblogged from the Pen and the Plough
Photo © Trevor Rickard (cc-by-sa/2.0)

The hearse stopped at the crossroads – two lanes folded like ribbons. It was left or right to either end of the hamlet. The left lane led to the church, now decommissioned, while the right made its way to the family farm.

‘Why has it stopped?’ I asked from the back seat.

There was a brief pause. My mother said: ‘They’re giving him one last look.’ And then the hearse turned left towards the graveyard.

Read more on the Pen and the Plough

Dark Ecologies: Art and Poetry at Nightfall

Join environmental historians Andy Flack and Alice Would, Bristol City Poet Caleb Parkin and audio-visual artist Kathy Hinde to explore darkness in their work and its connection to the more-than-human.

Tuesday 14th June 7.30 – 9.30pm. Glass Studio, St George’s, Bristol.


Andy and Alice’s research focuses on how attitudes to night-time have changed over the past several centuries, and the ways in which people have imagined what it means to be nocturnal.

Kathy’s work grows from a partnership between nature and technology expressed through installations and performances. Her work, shown internationally, offers poetic and reflective experiences that invite a heightened awareness of the world around us.

Caleb’s debut collection, This Fruiting Body (Nine Arches Press), morphs “human and more-than-human bodies in a post-human lyric disco lit with ecological thought” (Samantha Walton). It’s a playful invitation to a queer ecopoetics that permeates our bodies and speech, our gardens, homes, and city suburbs.

There’ll be opportunities to interact and talk about human and more-than-human experiences of night-time before Caleb and Kathy share work which explores these themes. We’ll encounter darkness, literal and metaphorical, with opportunities to ask questions. Then, the chance to move outside as night falls, discovering and – possibly – exceeding our human senses.

Doors open at 7:30pm for drinks and discussion, talks begin at 8:30pm.

£5 is our recommended price for this event. If this feels affordable and right for you then paying the recommended price will help us cover our costs.

There are limited number of tickets available for this session, please let us know if you are no longer able to attend:

This activity is taking place as part of the Festival of Nature 2022:

A Poetics of Inquiry: A Reading and Conversation with Tjawangwa Dema

Internationally acclaimed poet, Tjawangwa Dema (The Careless Seamstress and Mandible) will be reading from her work as part of the University of Southern California’s Visions and Voices platform. Dema is a poet, arts administrator, teaching artist, and an Honorary Senior Research Associate in the Department of English at the University of Bristol. Her writing includes work around eco-poetry, and identity and the pastoral form in poetry.

After the reading, Dema will be joined in conversation by Dr Kirk Sides of the Centre for Environmental Humanities and the Department of English at the University of Bristol.

The event takes place on Thursday 25 February at 8pm GMT, and is free. Registration is through Eventbrite.

Tjawangwa Dema’s poems are as bold, roving, and insistent as they are delicate and incisive.

Tracy K. Smith, U.S. poet laureate

Don’t miss internationally acclaimed Motswana poet Tjawangwa Dema, as she reads from her prize-winning collections The Careless Seamstress and Mandible, and performs spoken word pieces from throughout her career, reflecting on life in Botswana, the United States, and England.

By foregrounding inquiry as a poetic practice, Dema invests the mundane with philosophy and ordinary beings with beauty while exploring ecopoetry, gender, race, disobedience, labor, mythology, and empathy.

Eventbrite listing

Sargasso Sisters: Celebrating the European Eel

Eel Thoughts – Michael Malay

1. On the birth and death of eels

Eels are tiny when they are born, no bigger than a grain of rice, and completely transparent. If you were to look at them with a microscope, you would see into the world. But as they grow older they begin to absorb light, to bend and to capture it. Their skin darkens, their bodies lengthen, and their translucency is replaced by a brackish brown. Streaks of yellow run down their flanks, like bars of muddy gold, and their eyes grow more pronounced. The grain of rice has become a yellow eel.

But the transformations only continue, change following change. As they grow older, their yellow flanks darken, shade into umber, until, reaching full maturity, they take on the colours of a starry midnight. A slick, glossy black covers their top half, while their underbellies take on a silvery sheen. Glints of brown and green cover their back like flecks of mica. The yellow eel has become a silver eel.

Later, when they are ready to breed, eels will abandon their mud-holes in the river and turn their noses west, to the Sargasso Sea. It’s a place they hardly know, having left it when they were only a few days old. But it’s a region written into their bodies, and to which they return with unerring precision. During the day, they dive down to depths of two hundred metres, before moving upwards again at night. Their voyage thus describes a kind of sinewave, a diurnal dipping followed by a nocturnal surfacing: the arc of their homecoming.

The journey back is determinedly single-minded. Eels do not take a single morsel of food as they swim west, having already prepared for this voyage by storing up rich layers of fat. This is why they are rarely caught at sea. They are not returning for themselves but for the future, which makes itself felt as an itch in their bellies. After breeding, it is thought that adult eels simply perish and fall to the sea floor, where they turn into so much silt. But what survives them is instinct: millions of eggs floating up to the surface of the sea, like sparks from an unseen anvil. Each egg is a tiny plasma of light, each an eel waiting to be born.

And so they return east again, towards the rivers of Europe and North Africa: the Shannon, the Oued Sebaou, the Loire, the Elbe – and other points north, east and south.

2. Springtime

Elvers – the name for juvenile eels – arrive in Britain in the spring. And sometimes, in tidal rivers such as the Severn, they surge upstream on the spring tides of April and May. Part of the magic of elvers, then, part of their elvish charm, is how they unite the various meanings of spring. They leap into our world as the sap begins to rise, on the first spring tides of the year. (Spring: from the Old English springan, meaning an energetic leap or a sudden burst.)

As with the return of swallows, then, elvers help fetch the year to us; their entry into rivers is calendricallly precise. And if one could hover over the rivers of Britain, staying there patiently for days, for weeks, one would see what the kestrel sees: a greenness blooming as the elvers pass, an activating greenness that summons the ramsoms and bluebells of April, the cornflowers and dandelions of May…

3. Stenography

Eels are finding it harder to live here. After arriving in Britain, fresh from their Sargasso voyage, they meet with a series of strange hurdles: dams, sluice gates, tidal fences, barrages, weirs. Today, it is thought that there are more than one million man-made obstructions in rivers and streams across Europe.

The contradiction couldn’t be greater. On one hand, the hardness of concrete and the flushness of steel, and, on the other, this sinuous rope of changing life. Over its lifetime, an eel undergoes no fewer than four metamorphoses, as it transforms from being a leptocephalus to an elver, and then from yellow eel to a silver eel. It is an emissary from a world of alterations and flows, a creature of change and movement.

But what if eels are living letters sent from the Sargasso? If so, what messages might they carry?

What if, after looking into the water for weeks, we found ourselves surrounded by thoughts?

Sargasso Sisters from novadada on Vimeo.

A short meditative video-sonic piece celebrating and highlighting the habitats of the endangered European Eel (Anguilla anguilla).

Released for Fish Migration Day, 2020

Conceived and developed by Antony Lyons and Michael Malay.

Music contribution from The Fantasy Orchestra
(excerpts from ‘Final Moments of the Universe’ by Richard Dawson)
Arranged and conducted by Jesse D Vernon
extra soundtrack audio by Antony Lyons

Filmed at loactions in Portugal, Ireland and the UK.
Recorded and edited by Antony Lyons
Some Ireland footage by Will O’Connor (ECOFACT)

Poem: ‘L’anguilla’ by Eugenio Montale
narrated by:
Manuela Castagna & Francesca Cozzolino
Translation based on a version by Paul Muldoon.

Additional text by Michael Malay

Produced with funding from Leverhulme Trust and University of Bristol Centre for Environmental Humanities