Taking the Waters

Taking the Waters
click on the image to view the video


Marc Neys, aka Swoon, film-maker, Belgium
Dave Bonta, writer, second voice, USA
Rachel Rawlins, first voice, UK


A man on a beach near the mouth of the Firth of Forth is reading to the sea. He stands about ten feet out with his trousers rolled up to his knees reading aloud from a large book, turning first to the left, then to the right and then to face the horizon.

When Rachel tells this story later, our friend the musician says: maybe it’s the man's wife. Maybe he scattered her ashes out there.

They reminisce about sound artists they've known who worked the shore. Recording underwater is apparently a simple matter of putting a condom on a microphone and dangling it off the end of a pier. But what must the other fishermen think?

Walking the beach at dusk, a low surf of sand flies rises in front of us with every step. Listen, says the musician, and holds his video camera down to capture it: a whisper, like dry rain. We’re near the ruins of an old spa where ailing Victorians came to float in saltwater pools. The red sandstone blocks in the ancient wall behind us have thinned almost to nothing, some of them, under the sea’s corrosive treatments. They are scooped and scalloped. The sunset light like a hermit crab creeps in.

Marc Neys on the project

In August 2013, during the Filmpoem Festival, I met the two people behind this great story. I knew Dave and Rachel only through the net and it was an absolute joy to hang out with them for a few days. Some time after the festival Dave published his poem on his Via Negativa site.

I loved the way he brought together different real-life incidents, yet created a poem that left enough room for questions, humor and reflection. Having shot a lot of good material during the weekend, I wanted to make a videpoem out of this piece, so I asked both Dave and Rachel for a reading.

I first created a track with both their voices based on an earlier soundscape.

Then, after trying out almost every shot I made in Dunbar (none of them did the trick, like I wanted), I worked out a new version with other footage (shot in the mountains, go figure). This footage worked perfectly. I forwarded a link of the video to Dave and Rachel, asking them to say something about the poem, video and weekend.

Marc Neys
Marc Neys

Dave Bonta on the project

This video grew out of our shared experiences in Dunbar, Scotland, where Rachel, Marc and I spent a great deal of time together, walking, talking, and taking the local beverages. Since we were in town for the Filmpoem Festival, it seemed only fitting that a new videopoem should come out of it. However, Marc's first attempt with footage he’d shot on the Dunbar shore used an old poem of mine with which I'd become somewhat disenchanted. In the meantime, I'd written the prose poem, Taking the Waters, and suggested he try working with that instead, and obviously that's what he did - but with almost all new footage, shot not on the North Sea but high in the Austrian Alps.

When I write poems, I often have to resist the temptation to tie the images together too logically and neatly. The "scooped and scalloped" hollows in that sandstone wall reminded me more than anything of ears, and it was very tempting to introduce that metaphor in the poem for added resonance with the bit about sound engineers and recording the sand flies. But the thing about the sea shore, to me, is that it heals (if it heals) by reminding us of the limits of our own schemes and the vastness of everything we don't understand. Ending the poem with a different image altogether seemed like the right gesture toward otherness. It's a move I copied from Jimmy Yancey, the great blues piano player, who always switched to a different key on the very last notes of a song.

Prose poetry is closely associated with surrealism, but sometimes, as here, real-life incidents provide more than enough bizarre material to keep the prose from getting too prosaic. Rachel's story about the man reading to the sea was obviously key to the success of the text, so I'm glad she has a major part in the videopoem as the primary reader. Marc himself is "our friend the musician". It's interesting that he ended up not using much of the footage he shot that weekend, but I think avoiding too close a correspondence between subject matter and film images makes for a more suggestive videopoem. There are still enough visual and auditory artifacts from that weekend in the film to make it an apt memento for the three of us without, I hope, coming across to other viewers as exclusive or overly self-referential.

Dave Bonta
Dave Bonta by Jason Crane

Rachel Rawlins on the project

The man in the sea was a very striking and compelling phenomenon. His actions appeared so performative but he seemed completely oblivious to his audience-of-one. The stance, the size of the book, the turning to three directions all seemed to have a quality of solemnity or ritual, combined not with vestments but rather the ludicrous if practical rolled-up trouser legs. What was he doing? Why? Was this a regular occurrence or a one-off? What was the text? I wanted to take a photograph of him but did not because it felt as though it would have been an invasive act. (I'm very squeamish about taking pictures of people without their permission and this seemed an intensely personal moment. Sploshing through the waves to ask if I could snap him wasn't an option for me.) When I rejoined Dave and Marc I told them about the sea reader and we riffed on the mystery. How prosaic it might have been had we actually found out what had been happening. The space of not knowing is so much larger than certainty and we filled it with our story-making.

Having heard about how Marc manipulates sound made it an even richer experience. Without actively distracting myself thinking about what was the origin of which sound I was aware of appreciating a greater depth of complexity. It's the best possible souvenir of a memorable weekend but one which I am sure would work on all sorts of levels for anyone viewing it who didn't have the good fortune to be there.

It was a beautiful, slow, light-filled day and at sunset the pink-orange of the light made the orange-pink of the rocks glow. Overhead a rainbow joined each side of the bay.

Rachel Rawlins
Rachel Rawlins by Dave Bonta


Exhibition of sound-enhanced poetry and film-poems, Cube Gallery, Leicester, UK, April 2014.


Marc Neys is a Belgian composer and video artist with more than 400 videopoems and numerous festival selections and screenings to his name. Over the last few years he has focused more on his music, and released two CDs: How Doth the Little Crocodile Improve His Shining Tail, and Redemption.

Dave Bonta is a writer, editor, and web publisher from the Appalachian mountains of central Pennsylvania. Born the same year as the Miranda warning and the phrase "found poem" (1966), he's been exercising his rights to remain silent and to call anything a poem ever since. He is most widely known as the guy behind Moving Poems, a compendium of poetry videos from around the web.

Rachel Rawlins has lived in London for most of her life, which is inconvenient since she craves the sea and forests. She has a small but guilty pride in her reading ability which was developed during a previous career as a radio journalist. Of her many occupations over the years, her favourite remains knitting.
For their contributions, advice and assistance, thanks to:
Alison Pridham, Aljaž Koprivnikar, Ari Raijas, Bill Mousoulis, Brendan Bonsack, Brian Short, Bronwen Manger, Caroline Rumley, Charles Olsen, Chris Luscri, Chris Windmill, Claudia Larose-Bell, Darko Duilo, Dave Bonta, David Quiles Guilló, Eduardo Yagüe, Fiona Tinwei Lam, Francesca Guiliani, Gemma Grist, Helen Dewbery, Ian Gibbins, Ivana Bojanić, Jackson, Jane Glennie, Jim Robson, Karen Dawson, Kathryn Darnell, James Meetze, Lino Mocerino, Liran Shachar, Lois P. Jones, Lori Ersolmaz, Lucia Sellars, Lucy English, Luigi Starace, Maria Vella, Marc Neys, Martin Kelly, Matt Hetherington, Matt Mullins, Mike Hoolboom, Nigel Wells, Pam Falkenberg, Paul Casey, R.W. Perkins, Sissy Doutsiou, Sylvia Toy St Louis, Vicky Mousoulis, the film-makers, writers and their collaborators.