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Review of Making the Beds for the Dead
Richard Poole, New Welsh Review, volume 67, spring 2005Previous review of 'Making the Beds for the Dead'... Next review of 'Making the Beds for the Dead'... To the 'Making the Beds for the Dead' page...
Gillian Clarke's new collection is made up of five sequences and twenty-seven poems split into three unequal groups. Her first book, a Triskel pamphlet entitled Snow on the Mountain, came out in 1971 and, after reading Making the Beds for the Dead, I dug out my copy. There were her characteristic early themes: domestic life, rural life, personal relationships, landscape, the beauty and brutality of nature. There too were her characteristic strengths: fluency, lucidity and a directness and simplicity of utterance that could at need generate a luminous sense of mystery.
Well, her new book still displays these themes and qualities, but poets must move on if they are to continue to write, and Clarke has moved on. Making the Beds for the Dead engages with both human and geological history, and is also deeply marked by contemporary events. There was, on occasion, disturbance in Snow on the Mountain, but it was contained within the realms of the personal. Now it has broken out to infect everything, threatening 'the way things are, / shifting the very ground / beneath our feet.' ('Marsh Fritillary'). At home there was the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001, abroad there was 9.11 and (still is) war in Iraq, while everywhere looms the imminence of ecological meltdown.
The opening group of ten poems contains some of the most attractive writing in the book. In 'In the Beginning' the poet recalls the excitement of being given an illustrated copy of the Bible on her seventh birthday, and the way simple but mysterious words took hold of her imagination:
words to thrill the heart with a strange music,
words like flail, and wilderness
and in the beginning.
'A Woman Sleeping at a Table' uses Vermeer's painting as a jumping-off point. This is the mid-seventeenth century, and science and exploration are opening up the world. Humanity has lost its innocence, and Clarke imagines the woman waking and peeling an apple, symbol of the Fall:
Undressed to its equator
it is half moonlight.
Then all white, naked, whole,
she slices to the star-heart
for the four quarters of the moon.
Four Sequences follow this first group: 'The Stone Poems' (ten poems), 'The Middleton Poems' (seven), 'The Physicians of Myddfai' (three) and 'Nine Green Gardens'. These are poems for whose material the poet has gone quarrying, and they wear their research on their sleeve. Not infrequently I felt that I was being fed information, even structured in a quasi-pedagogical manner, and I recalled Keats' dislike of poems that have designs upon us. 'The Stone Poems' is a trek through geological areas, and while Clarke wants us to share her awe at the big numbers she lays on us, her writing sometimes feels uncharacteristically clumsy. Experience in her best work is internalised and transformed, but the raw material of these sequences often seems undigested and external. This can be the case even within a poem. Compare the declension in intensity, the shift from poise to rhythmic flatness, in these stanzas from 'Plumbing':
A lemon bloomed with frost,
hollowed and filled with sweet snow.
A bowl of ice and Muscat grapes.
Breath on a glass of wine.
He piped water to his gate for public use,
to save the rural poor from filth and fevers,
a hundred years ahead of his time devised,
a water system for Carmarthen.
Is the comma after 'devised', one wonders, a misprint or a symptom?
Making the Beds for the Dead sometimes also has facts to convey, but its urgency and power derive from personal disturbance, so that if at times its writing is strained, strain is a sign of authenticity. Most of the poems refer to the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, when Clarke's own holding was threatened, and they are by turns grim, bitter, angry, detached. Then, towards the end, the reader's surprised by a sudden expansion as international disaster breaks like a tidal wave over home concerns. It takes a very good poet to rise to the imaginative challenge of the images of 9/11 imprinted on us all, but Clarke does it in 'The Fall':
We watched them fall
like leaves, rubble, dust,
limbs akimbo on the air
as if arms could be wings,
as if men and women could be angels...
The enormity of this 'second fall from grace' both picks up the imagery of 'A Woman Sleeping at a Table' and reverberates through the strong group of five poems that closes the book. Here is war, here is the helplessness we all feel in the face of current world events, here is ecological meltdown: 'if civilisation drowns...' What a long way Clarke has travelled since her early Triskel collection 'In a Garden':
We have a future and are not shadow people.
The moving stream, the swelling bud, nothing
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