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After We’re Gone: All The Way Home By Jane Clarke
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
Jane Clarke
It was unfortunate for the Georgian poets – the group of Romantics and sentimentalists whose work was roughly coterminous with the first decade of the last century – that they should immediately precede the cataclysm of the Great War. Some of their Pastoral excursions were bound to look anaemic when viewed through battlefield binoculars.

And however well-wrought the patriotic inflection, however skilled the representation of an Arcadian England, the poems of writers like Rupert Brooke were always going to fade into inauthenticity when tested by the documenters of the charnel house over the Channel, and later, the febrile literary subversions of the Modernists.

The tender bucolic lyricism of Edward Thomas, on the other hand, is tempered on the whetstone of war, of our knowledge of the context of that war, and its beauty is magnified by the inherent sharpness of the contrast. Thomas served at the Front, and was killed there. Much of his later poetry, though mostly not about the war itself, is directly informed by it, and we sense the darkness closing in in the silences he leaves for reflection.

And it is tempting to surmise that Jane Clarke’s arresting new themed collection, All the Way Home, is fully cognizant of Thomas and of his oeuvre. A response to a photo archive of World War One, and specifically of the Auerbach family’s involvement in it, Clarke’s great skill is in rendering the war’s depredations through the lens of a rustic England whose purlieus would forever thereafter be disfigured by it, if only in perception.

Albert Auerbach and his sister Lucy are the prisms through which Clarke commemorates the bitterest of histories. Albert enlisted on the opening day of the war on 1st September, 1914 and served throughout, until he was killed by a shell exactly four years to the day after joining up; Lucy spent the war on the home front, communicating with her brother by letter. The photographs which accompany Clarke’s profoundly affecting poems are luminous transcriptions which freeze-frame lost summers in fields in rural England, lines of new recruits marching, and trains about to depart for the Front.

The poems reflect a transition: the passing of one life into another, the infusion of one with the memory of the other, the desperate hope bound up with halcyon, embellished thoughts of home. And it is to Jane Clarke’s huge credit that her ‘pictures’ are uncannily persuasive; her evocation of a lost time yields recognition in a synaesthesia of the senses – close observation of plants, flowers and pastures wrap existential longing in the focused narcosis of the moment:

‘We sat out after dinner

and talked of how we loved
this time of year,

when hollyhocks are past their best
but still stand tall

in copper, pink and cream,
beside clematis and the last of the sweet pea.’ (‘September’)


Clarke’s ear for the musical propensity of verse honeys the exchange between brother and sister: many of the poems are framed as open letters, as indices of indirect dialogue, as though Albert and Lucy were circling wraiths unable to communicate, their charmed words transfiguring memory into exquisite pain. As Lucy sings of the halcyon beauty of the Malverns to which her brother will not return, Albert finds trench comfort in the agony of remembrance:

‘look for grasses
  herbs trampled under their hooves

catch the scent
  of crushed chamomile lavender thyme

from the mossy mountainside
  drink the river’s source’ (‘When All This is Over’)


The tragedy is Orphic - there can be no point of reconciliation beyond inherently self-lacerating contemplation. And if Clarke’s verse is rendered in the sparsest of forms it is because the themes, at point of focused abstraction, recede to a single dot on the screen: the tragedy, so beautifully wrought in the photographs, is incarcerated like an inward scream in the poems. There is the profoundest of silences at the heart of each, leaving a terrible ache of unrequited longing.

Elsewhere, the animated imagination of a dying soldier reverts to the home he will never again see. In a poem whose title is the only clue to its over-arching theme, that home is reified to transcendence by the imminence of death, and the nocturnal certainties of nature will sustain:

‘someone calls quiet for the weather forecast,
no stars to be seen,

but sure as a loaf on the back of the stove,
the moon slowly on the rise.’ (‘Mortal Wound’)


Stoicism is the stuff of sustenance in the Trenches; one of the few adequate responses to the terrors of war, to the possibility of existential separation. Clarke’s detached transcription of an eyewitness account of a football game overwhelmed by shellfire on the Somme of 1916, is savagely ironic, but true to an instinct for ‘buggering on’, in Churchill’s words:

‘Still hot,
their bodies were stretchered
from the pitch.

Friends filled their places.
The ref blew the whistle again.’ (‘The Game, St. Stephen’s Day 1916’)


But the ramifications of war also ricochet outwards, and Clarke’s inner eye, like the photographs she observes, encompasses wider truths about what it means, for example, to be a refugee. The struggle for survival, and to find continued meaning where the limits of endurance are tested to destruction, is worked through in the witness poem, ‘Refugee’, which describes the experience of one suffering figure in the eyes of her peers. The titanic effort required to smuggle a piano out of a besieged city, against the advice of neighbours to burn it, becomes a metaphor, almost, for the survival of Art alongside the human spirit, as civilisation collapses:

‘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.’ (‘Refugee’)


The music sustains both sufferer and audience. The act of commemoration shaped in these lines resounds over fields and into memory, like birdsong, like the ache of a plaintive cello in Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

Also by Steve Whitaker...
Poem Of The Week: 'Famous For Fifteen Minutes' By John Foggin
Conference Of The Birds: Retreat To Settle Stories In August
Summoning The Dead: Ancient Magic By Philip Matyszak
Poem Of The Week: 'Made Up' By Louise G. Cole
The Naming Of Birds: Noctuary By Niall Campbell
The broken world of the Great War is given solace in the desperately moving ‘Priam of Troy’. At first glance a thematic departure, the poem embodies the spirit of forgiveness, the pity, even the hope within which our sense of the war is bound. A beautiful, alliterative re-imagining of one of the most affecting sequences of the Iliad – where Priam leaves Troy for the Argive camp to beg Achilles to let him anoint and recover the body of his slain son, Hector – Clark’s reading of the moment is as simple as a paean to continuing relevance needs to be. The humility of Priam’s request is entirely sincere; that Achilles accedes is an act borne of respect and pity. And the dead are lain properly to rest:

‘Poor as a peddler
   in a mule-drawn cart,
      he leaves his city at night –

bound for the camp across the plain,
   carrying gifts;
      the finest tunics,

robes, blankets, cloaks,
   woven from wool
      of young sheep and goats,

woven to warm,
   comfort, bind
      what is broken.’ (‘Priam of Troy’)



All the Way Home is published by smith ǀ doorstop.
For more information: http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/shop/1000/clarke-all-the-way-home

After We’re Gone: All The Way Home By Jane Clarke, 9th April 2019, 6:04 AM