A gem revisited: Jane Clarke



(Before you begin: an apology. I’ve repeatedly rest the poems with the proper stanza breaks, and WordPress doggedly keeps eliminating them. I have no idea why nor how to stop it. So, just in case it does it for the third time, I’ll tell you the stanza breaks for each poem as it arrives)

Jane Clarke was our guest on the cobweb in July 2015. It feels too long ago. Her rightly-praised first collection The River had just been published by Bloodaxe, and I loved it, as so many others do.You can catch up with that post, if you wish, via this link https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/07/25/a-river-runs-through-a-polished-gem-6-jane-clarke/

In any case, I’m going to lift part of it to start today’s post. I was riffing on the the significance of landscape and the feeling of belonging in, and to, a place. Jane’s place was, and probably still is, Roscommon, and the water meadows of the River Suck. Anyway, I wrote this:

“ 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. Whatever the truth, the river runs sure, through that stunning first collection.”


Of course it’s not just the physical landscape, and its psycho-topography, but also the landscapes and inscapes of family, and those who farmed it down the years. I think of The Rainbow, and the Brangwens who had lived on the Marsh farm for generations, the way a family may be bound with the land they worked. That feels especially poignant today. Jane’s father Charlie died four days ago. She’d written to me some time ago when she was looking after her Dad who’d had a fall, and said this in passing:

My parents love music – folk music, Percy French, Thomas Moore, anglican hymns and even now Dad regularly quotes Hiawatha, Julius Caesar, the psalms, the bible, Yeats (even though he left school at 14) – must have influenced me without my knowing it all those years. 

That found its way into a poem at some point…I just hunted for and found it. It was on Josephine Corcoran’s poetry blog : And other poems…almost exactly a year ago. This excerpt…. the first three stanzas….is what I thought of:

The Finest Specimen                                     [3 line stanzas]

When I was a child my father wrote the twelve fair days

of Roscommon on the back of a Players pack

and taught me to recite them as farmers used to do.


He showed me where the blacksmith had inscribed

1865 on a gate – the year Yeats was born, he’d say.

There’s one date you have to remember, your great


great great grandfather, the one with the whiskers,

was born the year of the rebellion, 1798,

any family history before that is just imagination.


(previously published in the Fish Anthology 2015)

A couple of days ago, she posted another poem for her Dad on her Facebook page. It ends like this, with a wish, or a prayer:     [it should be in 2 line stanzas]

That I could take him back

to his cobblestones and barn,

his rooks in the birch trees, his nettles

and ditches, limestone and bog.

That I could find the words to tell him

what he will always be,

horse chestnut petals falling pink in the yard,

the well that’s hidden in a blackthorn thicket,

cattle standing orange in the shallows,

a summer evening’s hush.

(From: That I could .,First published in One online journal,with thanks to Richard Krawiec.)

For today, while her Dad was still alive, I asked Jane to choose a poem for us to revisit, (ie one that I used in the first post) she chose ‘Every tree’ from The River.

Every tree                                                  [ 2 line stanzas]

I didn’t take the walnut oil,

linseed 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,

whittling knife

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.


It says what I’ve tried to describe 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’d give a lot to learn the art of its 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? It’s lovely.

I also asked if we could  have a new poem or more that she was happy to share. Jane replied: Here are three new poems, attached. Feel free to choose your favourite. They were published in a US Irish Studies Journal in Spring 2016 (New Hibernia Review Volume 20, Number 1, Spring, 2016) so it’s unlikely that your readers will have seen them before.

I can’t choose. So I’m sharing all of them.

The first, The yellow jumper, I liked especially because of the sense of shared riches in a family story that stretches back and back, and the love that’s implicit in the best story tellings. That clinching word in its last line: splendid

The Yellow Jumper                                     [3 line stanzas]

We weren’t married long when I saw

a turtle-necked jumper in Murray’s window –

yellow as happiness, as the flash on a goldfinch’s wings.


I imagined your father wearing it at the fairs,

standing out from all the rest in their greens

and greys. Eighteen shillings and sixpence,


I paid for it on tick, thruppence a week.

For all that he smiled on his birthday,

it remained on the back of the bedroom chair.


One day I folded and packed it in the chest

with the spare candles, letters, photographs

and the other questions I didn’t ask.


I like to think of him there, among pens

of breeding heifers, weanlings and hoggets,

splendid in yellow.


The second poem is in that same tradition of shared memory.


The Pianist                                            [3 line stanzas]

I don’t know how she did it,

smuggled a spinet,



all the way from Beijing.

We didn’t want trouble,

neighbours said we should burn it,


but if you saw how she touched it,

you’d know why we found

a hiding place in a faraway shed.


Like everyone else,

she spent long days in the fields

but come the night,


she’d be gone for hours at a time.

We didn’t ask,

didn’t want to know;


only sometimes we heard notes

carried, as if from the heavens,

by hard frost or on the wind.


What I like so much is the combination of the matter-of-fact …..the plain telling…and the mysterious, the sense of a kept secret, the deliberateness of ‘not knowing’ as though knowledge would be dangerous, or fatal to the music. It’s a haunting poem in so many ways.

The third poem brings me back to the work of hands and trades, but it’s also unobtrusively a poem like Heaney’s Digging ,  and, I suppose, The door into the dark , that connects the work of hands with the work of words in a communion of craftsmanship.

When winter comes                                                   [ 2 line stanzas]


remember what the blacksmith

knows, that dim light is best


at the furnace, to see the colours

go from red to orange


to yellow, the forging heat

that tells the steel is ready


to be held in the mouth

of the tongs and it’s time


to lengthen and narrow

with the ring of the hammer


on the horn of an anvil,

to bend until the forgiving metal


has found its form

in the sinuous curve of a scroll.


Then file the burrs, remove

sharp edges, smooth the surface,


polish with a grinding stone

and see it shine like silver, like gold.


When I read Jane’s post on Facebook last week, I said I’d light a candle for Charlie Clarke; I suppose this post is part of that promise.  And her poems remind me that Larkin’s cautious qualifications and ‘almosts’ miss the point. Because without qualification: what will survive of us is love. Thank you, Jane, for sharing that love.

[With my ‘revisited guests’ I’ve usually let them tell you what they’ve done in the interim before sharing new poems. That didn’t feel quite appropriate. I’ve left it to the end, and let the poems Jane sent me to work their magic. But if you’re meeting Jane for the first time, then you’ll want to know.

In 2016 Jane won the inaugural Listowel Writers’ Week Poem of the Year at the Irish Book Awards as well as the Hennessy Literary Award for Poetry. Jane’s first collection, The River, was shortlisted for the Royal Society for Literature Ondaatje Award, which celebrates literature evoking a sense of place. She has been continuing work on her second collection and has had poems published in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Irish Times, Poetry Ireland Review, New Hibernia Review, Resurgence and Ecologist magazine, Elementum magazine and the US on-line journals, One and Prelude. 2016 reviews of The River were published in The North, Poetry Wales, the Dublin Review of Books, New Hibernia Review, Resurgence & Ecologist and Artemis Poetry. She also continued a series of readings from The River, which took her to Wales, California and Washington DC as well as Sligo, Limerick, Newcastle West, Dublin, Cavan, Roscommon and Limavaddy.

The River [Bloodaxe 2015. £9.95]

The textured language, vivid imagery and musical rhythms of Jane Clarke’s debut collection convey a distinctive voice and vision. With lyrical grace these poems contemplate shadow and sorrow as well as creativity and connection. The threat of loss is never far away but neither is delight in the natural world and what it offers. Rooted in rural life, this poet of poignant observation achieves restraint and containment while communicating intense emotions. The rivers that flow through the collection evoke the inevitability of change and our need to find again and again how to go on.”

6 thoughts on “A gem revisited: Jane Clarke

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