Visiting St Thomas, by Rachel Piercey
‘By St Thomas Water’ is one of my favourite Charles Causley poems – the first he wrote with children in mind, and one he subsequently also published for adults. (See p.123 in the Collected Poems and p.40 in the Collected Poems for Children.) It is a shivery poem about death, language and knowledge, with a classic Causley question at the end. The young speaker and his friend plan to catch fish in the shallow waters next to St Thomas Church and go into the churchyard to repurpose a jam-jar of flowers left on a grave. Daringly, they try to summon a voice from underground, but when it does start to speak, and as they read the language of the gravestones, they become frightened, and rush out to escape it. The poem ends with the speaker wondering what the stones might say to him now that he is many decades older.
This last, unanswered question is infused with great poignancy because Charles himself is buried here, in the churchyard of St Thomas, by the shallow waters. I visited his grave last week, winding downhill from the town centre into the world of his childhood, where he lived and played beside the clear, dashing waters of the Kensey River, then on into the churchyard where he lies. His beautiful headstone, carved at the top with a hand holding a pen, simply and exactly describes him as “Poet”. I took some daffodils with me; they felt like the right choice, singing with such clarity and generosity of the world’s deep green spirit, bringing the powerful stories of Easter with them. I laid my flowers and stayed a while, with my thoughts, then walked out onto the strong and steady stones of West Bridge, one of the lovely icons of Launceston. If you blur your eyes – or let the rain fill them, as I did mine – you may still see a young Charles playing in the river down below.
No one can answer the questions of ‘By St Thomas Water’. But the point, in Charles’s poems, is always to wonder. His hundreds of poems still speak on, holding life to the light and asking What? Who? Why?