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Hard and Soft

The River, by Jane Clarke, Bloodaxe, 64 pp, £9.95, ISBN: 978-1780372532

The famous line from Heraclitus, starting “We cannot step twice into the same river …”, which serves as epigraph to Jane Clarke’s first collection, gives notice that the title is not only to be read with the literal grain. There are literal treatments of bodies of water, lake and river, especially the river Suck, a major tributary of the Shannon that flows through Roscommon and east Galway.

… We could look
As far as the next bend or out to the island,
Speckled with yellow iris, bordered with sedge. (“The Suck”)

Here is moving water easily shifting, as it does, in the direction of metaphor, while keeping its dimensions and presence. In “Dusk”, “the bell across the river / telling us it’s time to walk with sacks // of oats to wooden troughs in the Hill Field” celebrates the literal and substantial but cannot evade a barely dulled metaphysical resonance. In “Against the Flow”, the salmon’s upstream journey is not overly portentous in the imagining, as the poet attends closely to the geography of the stream:

… through riffles and deeps,
millraces that churn in spate,

over sheets of granite, across weirs,
into rapids that thunder-pound …

In “Epithalamium”, the stream becomes explicitly an image of a life as journey. “Where the River Deepens” and the title poem, “The River”, closing off the collection, are more sombrely freighted with the mystery of the generations.

The ordering of poems could be more suggestive. The first one, “Honey”, about a beloved sheepdog that is handed over to be shot after having turned sheep-killer, is a respectable, realistic piece; but it seems wrong as the opener for the collection. With other meditations on rural hardness and softness it may represent a phase of the poet’s growth, or a stratum that is revisited. But her scrupulous, unaffected acceptance of country living as her theme is one of the things that give this book its strength. The realities of farm and family life, its human and animal closeness (a wife smelling her husband’s jacket, “cigarettes, silage and Brylcreem”; “breathing clouds” of Friesian cows) enliven many of the poems with their texture, their feeling of being grounded in life.  In others, the natural world seems less familiar, appears as the object of a wondering gaze, as in a poem about moths, “The Catch”:

Soon after dawn I crept barefoot
to watch the catch, their hindwings tucked
under forewings, asleep …

The voice is sometimes a persona, as in “Inheritance”, sometimes its urgency asks to be heard as the poet’s own, as with “For Michael”. All of her poems are written in clear, unpretentious language that is sometimes rather overcompressed, as if the “and” we use so readily in speech was felt not to have earned its keep. “I folded my life into his // bore him two girls, four boys” (“The Price”) ‑ this not uncommon way of writing verse makes a frivolous reader wonder if the poet is afraid of being charged by the keystroke. We are urged to cultivate the monosyllabic and the factual and it is on the whole good advice, but too much tight packaging can make passages in a poem read like lists.

Another kind of packaging may also be due to the influence of the workshop culture. I freely admit to a prejudice against the exercises in writing pantoum, villanelle, ghazal or sestina, which may enable bonding among groups of students. I have a strong feeling that a poem should find its form as an individual writing enterprise and that a poet should find her voice as she moves through the forest of subjects that want to be written about and words and shapes that offer themselves. For some poets the frisky games played by these exotic forms are utterly seductive and transform their writing ‑ but I can’t in the case of Jane Clarke make out just why “On the Boat” should take the shape of a pantoum or “Who owns the field?” of a villanelle.  I am inclined to hold the publisher responsible for glossing “callows” and “flaggers”, the meaning of both being quite clear from their context. Is nobody to have the pleasure of guessing at the meaning of an unfamiliar word in a poem any more?

The virtues of Jane Clarke’s writing include a broad sympathy that never usurps the voice of the other, that guides the reader to understanding and respect; a pleasure in ingenious objects and crafts that is deftly transmitted; and a clarity which does not deny mystery but makes room for it. Sometimes the imagery of landscape, of rowan and celandine, can seem to be trying to shine too much light into the closed places of the heart, but there are many poems that admirably call our attention to the inexplicable, lightly as in “Back of an envelope”, more gently disturbing in two poems on facing pages, and the gap between them, “Cows at Dugort” and “Among the Cows” the first a faithful capturing of the animals’ behaviour, the second full of the weight of absence:

Her father knew where to find her;
she liked to stand among the cows …

When her mother died
her father wore his grief the way

he wore his Sunday suit,
as if it belonged to someone else.

She would listen to the calves
calling for days when weaned

until their voices, exhausted,

faded like mists from the fields.

The River is an achieved first collection that amply shows what this poet can do. I am impatient to see what she does next.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is a poet and editor. Her latest collection is The Boys of Bluehill



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