I first came across Gillian Clarke’s poetry as a teacher, teaching it. She (and her poetry) were a mainstay of a GCSE English poetry anthology, with poems like the poignant and relateable Catrin in particular used in connection with those from Seamus Heaney (e.g., Follower) for linking to the theme of Relationships. I think her work was first included in 2000 – and I quite by chance came across a planning schedule from me to the English team dated 2009 with the following:
Key Literature poems introduction. Focus on parental theme: ‘Follower’, ‘Digging’, ‘Catrin’, ‘On My First Sonne’
so she was anthologised for at least a decade, and probably more. I’ll leave this reminiscence now before someone wants to debate the pros and cons of teaching anthology poems – I could talk to both. I’d also like to think at the time we all in the English department articulated an awareness of the diversity embraced (or perhaps not) by the ‘parental’ reference.
This collection from Broken Sleep Books is therefore a welcome return for me to Clarke’s fine poetry, The Hours released from the shackles of having to be taught, but nonetheless firmly rooted to another context: Covid and lockdown.
In the opening poem The Silence, Clarke references the ‘pretty names’ of various diseases (‘Ebola’ / ‘Nipah’) as well as their viral flights around the world, this then drawn from a reference to Da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds through the imagery of
‘the winged mammal Leonardo caught and cut’.
This is next linked to the consequential reality of our collective isolation
‘Isolate. Isola. Island. Ynys. Us.
(the ellipsis here is in the book a gap before the following ‘with the page’: for a moment I got trapped in teaching mode, knee-jerked into how I would look at and talk about those individual, isolated words, and then the enjambment for ‘Alone’, and the visual impact of that gap…)
and her own personal place in this
‘to Llanllwni mountain over the brow of a field’.
These opening themes are further carried on lyrical lines linking the natural world to the human experience where ‘birds self-isolate to the trees’ and the wider (incidental?) consequences of ‘festivals folding their tents’.
This is a wonderful first poem/opening on the lockdown experience that merges references to fear and gain, this latter represented in the next poem March 2020 where the ‘human’ silence of lockdown allows us to hear the palpable world around us.
The personal and the global experiences are continually linked as the poems progress, so in April we have the lines
‘The whole world together.
Each one of us alone.’
In another line ‘The world belongs to this virus’ we have the thread of Clarke’s poetic response to it, and questions asked in this poem purposefully universalise and diversify the experience.
The final poem in this short sequence What time is it? is self-conscious about the writing process – ‘viral on a moonless page’ – but this and what precedes is, for me, quintessentially the poetic voice wrapping a beauty of observation, thought and expression around something ugly to own it as best it can. And perhaps precisely because of the crafting of this work I should be less sheepish (through my earlier deflecting ‘teaching it’ aside) about acknowledging the traditions Clarke uses in her poetry.
In the book’s title poem The Hours – St Benedict’s hours of the day 6th century, Clarke is referring to his eight daily prayer routines and therefore the themes already mentioned are continued indirectly or directly though this ruse, for example in Sext
‘…There will be
no mourners, no funerals’.
These poems explore further the personal and the global and the universal, and the language is both beautiful – again – but also vivid and blunt: the final two poems What day is it? / What month is it? breaking the rudiments of hourly schedules and the notion of such control to reflect the loss of time. These poems embrace themes of death and life as obviously normal realities but also those rooted to their Covid context – and the paradox of its universality as well as each ‘alone’ experience.
This is an important, meaningful collection – its voice poetically fixed in the natural world to articulate the viral impact of Covid on all life. It is neatly produced by the excellent Broken Sleep Books, this one of its Secret Sleep Books where sales profits go to a charity, this edition to Shelter.
For more details, go here.