Butter For Queens: A Change In The Air By Jane Clarke
There is a still calm at the heart of Jane Clarke’s poetics. Consisting in intensely focused reflection, little can break the spell of quietude beyond that which is earned in a perambulation of context; we infer sound and fury only when we consider the emotional ramifications of time moving, of a well-tilled and sometimes ravaged Irish landscape, or of loss.
By inverse logic, the river that decants into the sea at Carlingford Lough in the poem ‘You could say it begins’, finds its source in this same north eastern corner of the Republic. The fact of its continual movement – its passage through many towns, villages and counties is tortuous – yields a symbolic unity that renders direction of flow meaningless, except, perhaps, to geographers. And in the river’s progress we have a persuasive metaphor for the irrelevance of direction to the idea of being in the moment: bereavement, family annals, and personal war histories are perceived in crystalline focus in this inimitable and beautiful new collection, as though struggle might best be described in the architectural detail of days and the natural abundance that fills them.
What animates Jane Clarke are love and endurance: artfully calibrated, each section of A Change in the Air
is an emotional complement to the next, for each poem hangs on one, or sometimes several, exquisitely clarified observations of landscape and of the figures in it, magnified as if through water. The two are in any case indivisible – the agricultural terrain is presented as a series of potent images whose significance is a measure of the unseen connection anchoring people to the world that made them.
The early poems, here, concentrate on a mother figure at the end of her life, captured in a retrospective present that confers dignity on, and gratitude for, that life...
Clarke’s ministry is slow, intense and achingly attentive: her rhythms are palpable but faintly-felt, like a dying pulse; her syntactical acuity conceals metrical purpose, working on the imagination by stealth and conveying the impression that apprehension is, or should be, as natural as breathing. The reader is unaware of the sleight-of-hand being practiced, and is increasingly absorbed in tableaux that proceed, in meaning and aesthetic satisfaction, at the recumbent pace of a narrow-boat in a rural backwater. Including, in the deeply affecting opening sequence of the book, a gradual submission to the erosions of dementia, rendered figuratively in the predatory ravening of the rural world with which the narrator is familiar:
‘says I must remember
has slipped into her mind
and every night,
like a stoat among voles,
it hunts down her memories’. (‘Raspberries’)
The pace of the poet’s extraordinary imaging is always
measured, delivered in the languid slow-motion of rural life, down to the last drop of dew, milk, or morphine. The early poems, here, concentrate on a mother figure at the end of her life, captured in a retrospective present that confers dignity on, and gratitude for, that life, against a background of flowers, trees and animals that accumulate to create a single unified vision of a woman, of her cultural bindings. And there is much to wonder at in Clarke’s definition of a life lived according to the tenets of duty and observance, much to relish in the mother’s sudden rediscovery of a sense of taste through memory in the delicious ‘Butter for Queens’, a synaesthetic celebration of the simple joy of the spud:
‘My mother craves new potatoes –
dripping with butter, sprinkled with salt.
They taste of the earth, she says
and remind her of corncrake mornings’.
The whole(some)ness of the vision is the reward for duty and labour discharged: the nurse who undertakes her own kind and gentle duty to the dying woman (‘District Nurse’), the animals whose seeming selflessness might not be illusory (‘But horses have more gumption / than any of us
’ – ‘All the horses she’s ever loved’), and finally, the daughter herself, for whom the inherited mantle is no less than a debt of love:
‘I read my mother stories
till she falls asleep
to dream of her mother
coming to take her from me.’ (‘Becoming’)
Speaking of love and continuity, ‘Becoming’ is a heartbreakingly simple poem, as embedded in the needfulness of simplicity as the stock of Irish colloquialisms that Clarke deploys throughout this fine collection. Rooting her adagios in the soil of her country, like the subterranean ‘buddles’ of the old mines, or the ‘sloblands’ of muddy peat, the poet allows the past to exhale in the present, disinterring the meaning of redundant or transient cultures.
Jane Clarke’s knowledge of her country’s history is tempered with insight. Insinuating her narrators in the frame of cataclysmic events...
Portraying the old world in a persuasive present tense, Clarke’s ‘occupation’ of the history of lead mining at Glendasan in Wicklow is a testament to her research and intuition. Opening a seam of the past in first and third-persons, the poet conveys an authentic landscape of religious observance, endurance and terrible hardship. Raw fear – advanced palpably in ‘The Pay’, where ‘every hour under Camaderry / was an hour too close to rockfall’ – is paid for in a balance sheet of prayer, in the concisely brilliant final tercet of ‘Christmas Morning’:
‘They belt out carols they learned
as children, listen to the story of hope,
then kneel to petition for clear lungs,
safe shifts and the price of lead to hold.’
If the heart-lifting vision of the ‘morning mist’ to a benighted miner is a joy rendered in counterpoint, then the narcotic yearning of a Great War soldier for his native land doubles down on an abstract emotional connection that is hugely reinforced in extremity of circumstance. The light of home is made halcyon by the apple-strewn promise of ‘September 1914’, whose concession to context adds mightily to its undercurrent, and if Edward Thomas foreshadows Clarke in resonating binaries, several of the other poems of a sequence entitled All the Way Home
dispatch the Irish Guards to the Front. In Clarke’s characteristic use of couplets in ‘Bouchavesnes’, the farmers of peacetime dig the graves of comrades, ‘wielding pickaxe, mattock, spade’ whilst thinking of ‘grandad / digging potatoes’. Sometimes a sense of home hallows the war-torn fields that will be healed by farmers in time. The backfilled shell holes that will throw up the personal effects of the dead – ‘boot laces, shaving mugs, razors’ – are subtly juxtaposed with inventories of the living, of labour and family:
‘another passes the time at the parapet
naming the flowers in his mother’s garden:
foxgloves, peonies, lupins, heart’s ease.’ (‘After we’re gone’)
Jane Clarke’s knowledge of her country’s history is tempered with insight. Insinuating her narrators in the frame of cataclysmic events, sometimes in the first-person present, her poems retain the dynamism and drama of lived experience. The received effect is shattering. Retailing the moment at which the Civil War is brought to a peaceful farmstead in a hail of bullets, ‘Flight’ precipitates the fleeing of the family to safety, consoled by the Bible at their feet. For the Catholic Church is an all-seeing eye in the hinterland that Clarke describes. If ‘Family Bible’ tucks the shards of domestic history in and amongst the pressed flowers and details of births and deaths for ‘safe keeping’, then the recording process also preserves the kindness of those who instinctively pull together, even where the deafening silence of sectarian division threatens to overwhelm them:
‘when a child is ill.
a harvest fails or a well runs dry,
we set our differences aside.’
Hardship is reimagined in ‘Passage’, a memorial to what the bloated Victorian ruling classes might have referred to as the ‘indigent’ or ‘feckless’ poor of the Famine, now seeking a new life in Canada. Simple, desolately moving, the poem reeks of pain and death, as skeletally impoverished as the Famine Boat at Murrisk, itself a sculptural embodiment of the emigrant ‘coffin ships’, and of the relentless hunger and desperation that attended them. Clarke’s withering couplets represent the attempt of a mother to give hope to her child in the face of fever and hunger. And they are utterly compelling because the mother keeps the horizon in focus, in despite:
‘I’ll lull her to sleep with tales
of soft feather beds in Quebec
and loaves of fresh-baked bread.
Her father will cross the ocean
to find us and he’ll see her blossom
like the whitethorn
that brightens our byroad today.’
But most of all, for this poet who combines the near-mystical focus of Eavan Boland with Heaney’s sense of history and place, is the feeling of being sustained by family and landscape; more still, the reaching of an accord in the breaking of bread, in the understanding of a shared purpose beyond division and difference. Broaching the difficult terrain of homosexuality in a resolutely reactionary landscape, Clarke’s inwardly-lit poem ‘Spalls’ effects a kind of unspoken transformation in those who might have preferred the course of love to have run in a different direction. The father’s building of bridges is achieved in silence, and it is a benediction:
‘My father took off on his own to spud ragwort or clip a hedge.
One day he spent hours gathering stones of different shapes and sizes.
By evening he’d built us a wall under the holly, held together
by gravity and friction, hearted with handfuls of spalls.'
A Change in the Air
is published by Bloodaxe Books (2023). More information here