I know things are different these days, and I know that it’s a shame and a sin, and I know it wasn’t entirely normal, even then. But here’s the thing. When I was teaching in schools, through the 70’s and 80’s, I couldn’t wait to get back after the summer holidays. I liked to go back into school maybe a week before it reopened and get stuff sorted, organised, printed. I think Primary teachers were even more likely to be doing the same thing. I liked the buzz of possibility. Bear in mind that I was working in a system where we wrote our own curricula, our own schemes of work, our own exam syllabuses, where we had 100% coursework exams. In the 16+Exams I’d known no other system since 1969.
I loved the start of that term straight after the summer break. It felt like we all had a clean slate and that anything and everything was possible, that all our sins were forgiven, and that we could be whoever we wanted. That feeling would last for about three weeks, and, in general seemed to be shared by by most of the students I taught. (didn’t call them students then; called them kids. Ah well). It lasted until the marking started to come in and pile up, and Sundays became marking rather than planning and inventing. But every year, without fail, there it was. The anticipation. The buzz.
Which is precisely how I feel after a two week lay-off. Man, it feels like months. It’s lovely to see you all again, all refreshed; thirteen guest poets signed up, and ideas fighting for space. If it all turns out a bit incoherent, well, that’s why. I’ve spent some time reviewing the poems I’ve written over the last three years …round about 300….and unnerving myself by noticing the regular appearance of a small number of words that seem to be a kind of default thinking. Dark (with the corollaries of white and grey and black); stone; cold; hill(s) and hillsides. Oh, and a lot of wind, rain, sky, sleet, snow, ice, and cold. Why should that be?
I’m not of a morbid frame of mind; I like to think my world view is mainly optimistic. I think it comes down to the landscapes where I feel comfortable. They’re almost always hilly, rocky, uncompromising; they ideally involve sea. I can write about hot places but not lush ones. I don’t know what to make of woodlands and forests and greenery. I can make even less of flat places, saltmarsh, estuaries. I’m starting to wonder if it’s because I grew up in relatively (though undramatically) narrow valleys. I live on a hillside where I can look up and down the valley, or across the valley to the opposite hillsides, and beyond to the Pennines. I begin to think that what I’m conscious of is hillsides and gradients and the stone underneath them. It’s as though what I’m aware of is ‘valley’, and that the river is incidental, as though it came from the hillsides and not the other way round. I’d not considered this until I was reading and re-reading ‘The river’ , the first collection by today’s Gem, Jane Clarke. I began to wonder if growing up by a river among green fields under a wider sky than mine might be a key to poems that are full of time and the passage of time, of transience and spaciousness. I suspect this will not hold water, but maybe there’s a sort of truth in there somewhere.
And so we find ourselves by the River Suck, that flows through Roscommon. ‘It was where / we’d go to talk, or cry, or be quiet / in the company of the current’, writes Jane in her poem, The Suck. It’s a river, she says, that flows, rolls, that drifts, smooth and slow. The Suck, An tSuca, the origin of whose name is lost (says Wikipedia) in the mists of time, and may be derived from an older Irish word for ‘amber’. Or not. Nobody knows. It flows and rolls and drifts through limestone country to the Shannon. Lakes appear or disappear in rain or drought. Turloughs. Lakes that swell and shrink as though the earth was breathing. What a lovely word. I don’t know how it’s pronounced. I imagine long vowels. A soft fricative ff, or an even softer glottal.
What I do know is that I have met Jane twice, both times on a writing course in Almaserra Valla, in Relleu, in Alicante. The first time was among a group of people with whom I felt out of my depth. I was quite happy with that. A zone of uncertainty is what I need if I’m ever going to get anywhere. But I wasn’t noticing people much, until I had to notice Jane. First, because of her reading a first draft of The suck. It was spacious and intimate and she read it quietly, with spacious vowels. And then, the second time, because of this poem I asked for specially, and which doesn’t appear in the collection.
Circle of Stones
It was ages before you took me
up the hill behind your house,
over tumbling walls,
through gaps in hedges
to the circle of stones
where no wind ever blows
through gaps in hedges,
over tumbling walls,
up the hill behind your house,
it was ages before you took me.
Out tutor, Jane Draycott set this quick exercise involving creating a place and a journey in five or six lines, and then reversing them. I guess we were tricked into writing a speculum. It’s the kind of exercise I instinctively resist for no reason that I can fathom. But this lovely short poem taught me to be more open-minded, less resistant. What struck me was not only the sense of revelation, or epiphany, but also the way the poem is simultaneously about a quite specific place and about quite specific people, and about the way in which the who, and the where and the why are ambiguous and mysterious. A circle of stones will always be magical, but the resonance of a place where no wind ever blows, no matter how high you are, stays and stays in my mind, as does the sense that we can never go back. Or, more precisely, that when we do it won’t be the place we left, and we won’t be who we were, and that this is what a specululum can do. It also makes me think of the epigraph to the whole collection: We cannot step into the same river twice. Exactly. I know this poem didn’t find its way into The river but its spirit is right at the heart of it. So thank you, Jane, for letting me print it here.
That was the first time I met Jane. I remember, too, that I managed, by the imprecise description of a route round a hill called Beni Sur, to get her half-lost on a scrubby, thorny, steep stony hillside. Poor thanks for a great poem. Sorry about that. The second time was like meeting a different person. This one had a grin that wouldn’t come off. I’m very tempted to put a picture of it in here.Her collection had just been published. It’s the second time this year I’ve been on a writing course with someone whose debut collection has just been published. Kim Moore and Jane Clarke. If you ever wonder what joy looks like, well that’s what it’s like. But you’d have to be there. At which point, I realise I haven’t introduced Jane to you . I suppose it’s possible that there are readers out there who haven’t met her yet. Though not in Ireland, I should think.
Anyway. Ladies and gentlemen! My guest poet for the start of a new term! Originally from a farm in Roscommon , Jane Clarke now lives near Glenmalure, Co. Wicklow. Her first collection, The River, is published by Bloodaxe Books. She has had poems published in Acumen, Agenda, Abridged, The North, The Rialto, Ambit, Poetry Wales, The Irish Times, The Irish Independent – New Irish Writing, Mslexia, Envoi, Southword, THE SHOp, Cyphers, The Stinging Fly, Crannog, The Irish Literary Review, The Stony Thursday Book, Skylight 47, The Interpreter’s House, The Galway Review and Revival. She won the 2014 Listowel Writers Week Poetry Collection Award and also the 2014 Trocaire/Poetry Ireland Competition. Shortlisted for the 2013 & 2014 Hennessy Literary Awards she also won the inaugural Poems for Patience, 2013; Listowel Writers Week (2007) and the iYeats (2010). She was commended in the 2013 Hippocrates Poetry Prize and was runner-up in the 2012 Mslexia Poetry Prize , the Fish Poetry Prize, 2009 & 2012 and the Dromineer Literary Festival 2012. She has two poems in the Tokens for the Foundlings anthology published by Seren, three poems in The Roscommon Anthology and a poem in a Theory of Knowledge textbook published by Oxford University Press. So now you know. She’s put the hard miles in, and now she’s earned the right to that wonderful wide smile.
The river is a collection of poems that are sure-footed, tough and tender. I’m going to use that word ‘spacious’ again. Jane will often use couplets, or three-line stanzas, always with a focussed economy that makes me feel the space around them, and the resonances of the spaces. She writes about her life on a farm by a river; she writes about her mother and father, she writes about the working fields in a way that never once forgets the work and the toil, and the toll it takes, say, on a man’s hands. Jane Clarke writes with a fine eye for remembered detail in language marked by good farm words like “slane and sickle”, “clout and stud nails” says Gillian Clarke, in her endorsement of the book, and Paula Meehan writes: This is not pastoral poetry though there’s plenty of pasture in it, and hens and hay and alders and willows and heifers. There’s not a shred of sentimentality in any of these poems, but there’s wistfulness, and unbounded love, and, always, the river that:
‘We could dream of leaving, making lives
of our own, ask the river to bless us, let us go’
I think what I found most significant was that prayer for the river’s blessing, a prayer that it will ‘let us go’. There’s the toughness. We”ll not be tied or restricted into a fake nostalgia. There’s a wider world out there.
If you’re not Irish it’s possible that you’ve not bought the book yet. You should put this right forthwith. If you still need persuading, here are two more poems. Neither has a river in it, though one has a boat. The first one says what I mean about the nature of work in Jane’s poetry, or, specifically, about the work of hands. I think it’s also about legacies and about moving away, about becoming, about why we can’t go back. And also, perhaps, why we shouldn’t want to.
I didn’t take the walnut oil,
the tins of wax
or my lathe and plane
when I closed
the workshop door.
I left the grip of poverty
on the bench
beside my mallet,
and fishtail chisel
with its shallow sweep.
I quit the craft
my father had carved into me
when I was pliable
as fiddleback grain,
left all at the threshold,
except for the scent of wood,
a different scent
for every tree.
I’d give a lot to learn the art of that quiet economy. The weight that a short sentence can bear. I left the grip of poverty / on the bench. Do you see what I mean about spaciousness? About resonance? And I’d give a lot to write a love poem as sure and tender as the next one.
I can´t promise it´s chiselled from gold
in spirals that speak of forever.
I can´t tell you it´s wise as a mountain
with pines that reach for heaven.
I can´t promise it´s flawless as honey
gathered by bees in bell heather.
I can´t say it´s simple as silk
spun from cocoon into treasure.
But I promise it´s rooted as rowan
with berries that sing to September.
I promise its to and its fro
will surprise like Glenmalure weather,
a seasoned row boat,
moored or unmoored at your pleasure.
Now, apart from the fact that I read this as one sentence that leads joyously to that ‘But’, and because I love a single sentence poem for its rhythm and rhetoric and the need for breath, I’m totally hooked by the rowan. I look back through my own poems, and which tree gets the most name-checks? The rowan. A mountain tree and a magical tree. Here in Glenmalure. Where I imagine I would feel at home. Hillsides and stone.
It makes me wonder again how the place where you live forges or nurtures the language of your poetry. Heather and rowan and celtic gold. But after all, it’s a valley, and a river runs through.
Thanks for being my guest, Jane Clarke. Thank you for The River. Thank you for the grin. Thank you for forgiving me for imprecise directions.
Because we’ve had a holiday, and because you did your holiday reading, we’re having a guest next week, too. So, queue up nicely with your £9.95, and Miss Clarke will sell you your copy and she’ll sign it like a proper poet. What’s that? you ask. What she’ll do is put a stroke through her name on the title page, and then sign it. Why? I have no idea. But apparently Seamus Heaney says you have to.