Thursday, 12 November 2015

First thoughts - Jane Clarke: The River

Poetry where human hands meet nature's hand


Jane Clarke’s first collection ‘The River’ is already making waves, thus bursting the boundaries of what we may assume a poet’s early work to be. Clarke lives in Wicklow, Ireland, but only started writing 10 years ago, significantly inspired by the landscape around her.  Yet rather than the sweeping, even overwhelming aspects of nature we may associate with pastoral poetry, rather than pouring out about nature, Clarke pours into it – steering her poetic brilliance through every nook and cranny. This is where we see natures hand, the river, alongside human hands, a powerful force running alongside the everyday: a tin basin, a blue Bible, a drystone wall.


‘The River’ is a collection which celebrates human as well as natural geographies, which made me think -  this is what a river does; flowing through life, bringing positive and negative to both human and animal. Poetry which makes us reconsider nature in such a way certainly is powerful.  In some poems we see these contrasts at their most stark, like the opening ‘Honey’, a sheepdog who sits obediently whilst the children ‘offer her a cup of tea’. This domestic scene is contrasted bluntly at the poems’ closure ‘he drags her by the scruff/leaves her at their feet’, with the dog sent to nature’s inevitable process – we assume death.

'That ever-flowing river beside and inside us' 


Clarke appreciates these layers to life like a river stirs its levels of sediment. Growing up on a farm in Roscommon, Ireland seems to have given her an awareness of how human and nature infuse. We see this in the profound simile ‘Blue veins lie like the rivers on the map of her hands’, lingering in my mind long after I had finished the collection, from the poem ‘Daily Bread’. To me, this served as a profound reminder of our relationship to nature; it flows through us, something we shouldn’t forget even when we are wrapped up in the ‘daily’ human routine.

Because realising our relationship to nature, that ever-flowing river beside and inside us, can be empowering.  You can feel the power in Clarke’s poetry, just like the rhythm she mixes into ‘Daily Bread’ - those hands, complete with their rivers, bringing about energy. It is here we see how human works with bread like hands with water: ‘with the rhythm, of a rower she kneads’, and are invited to consider the new dimensions Clarke lends to such a basic task. It is through concise, accessible language that she creates situations we can quickly relate to, even if we haven’t had direct experience. In this way, the collection offers a real exploration of empathy: questioning how and why we relate to things. Nature knows us, a river is our relation. So it is not just situations, but whole settings Clarke uses to consider this. For example, in the ‘Harness Room’ the speaker questions the source of the love she feels for this place:

‘Is it the swallows’ nest/
In the rafters among cobwebbed haystacks
Bridle and saddle, slane and sickle.’

In this setting, natures nest meets human habitation, bound by the apparent reflection of the speaker and the bold sibilance.  Clarke often uses beauty of language to create a mood of reflection; after all, we remember, a river offers us a reflective surface. And never far from this surface is the emphasis of natures flow alongside us, the reassuring ‘company of the current’ as from the poem ‘The Suck’.  This is an apparent allusion to The River Suck, which flows through the Shannon Basin in Ireland. Clarke is currently proving highly popular in her native country, and it’s no wonder, as her poetry pays homage to its landscapes and ways of life. She has been accredited for her poetry work there on a wide-scale, with prizes such as the Trocaire/Poetry Ireland Competition (2014), Poems for Patience (2013) and iYeats (2010). There is homage to place clearly flowing through pieces such as ‘Sorrell Hill’ and ‘Cows at Duggort’.

'It shapes the present and future rather than circling in sentimentality' 



Yet she pays homage without hurt or regret. Instead, this is poetry which reflects on the present of places and their potentials; rather than them being exclusively part of a speaker’s past. That is again an emphasis of our relationship with the natural world, it shapes the present and future rather than circling in sentimentality – as the isolated human mind can tend to.  At the beginning of the collection, Clarke quotes Heraclitus of Ephesus and his famous statement ‘we cannot step twice into the same river’. For the river symbolises a course, like the course of life, but also a continuity of change.

‘’I’d give it all up in a minute
Every last rock
Stream and sod of it.

They can have the price of sheep
The grant for the cattle shed
And the bills from the vet’

These lines, from the poem ‘Inheritance’ express energy as aforementioned, which keeps the tone fresh and engaging – never stagnant. Throughout the poems, Clarke creates feeling with powerful concision, tending to use couplets and triplets to pack a punch, rather than lingering lines. We feel the reality of her poems, their directness, rather than a drawn-out aftermath. With ‘inheritance’ the subject, we typically expect dwelling upon the past, but here Clarke throws in the future tense and shows a reflection on the harsh realities of life, the decisions which have to be made.

'Looks at human and nature in an unapologetic, unflinching way' 


After all, ‘The River’ both as a collection and as a force of nature, does not avoid the difficult terrains – it passes through a variety.  This includes a course of human histories; beginning with the childhood perspective in ‘Honey’ and closing around poems which focus on aging and death. It is expressed directly, naturally, a fathers hands as he ‘lifts them again, crashes them/to the bed’ – as part of a collection which looks at human and nature in an unapologetic, unflinching way.

This is a collection in which we see a number of repeated symbols, clear repetition - not only the river, but hands and cows, to name a few – yet the emphasis is upon change. Like in life, we are repeatedly subject to the same mind, the same hands, but we can use them differently every day – to potentially create something brilliant, feel different.  It’s time we took inspiration from ‘The River’ and embraced the nature of change; the great changes nature brings which we can be part of.