Review: The River by Jane Clarke

The River (Bloodaxe Books, £ 9.95) by Jane Clarke reviewed by Tony Curtis

It is a pleasure to read this debut collection of poems, handsomely produced and finely judged in terms of its orchestration of elegy and celebration; especially as I encountered many of these in workshops in my last years teaching on the Masters at Glamorgan: I watched some of them grow. I must therefore declare an interest in and commitment to this writer.

Jane Clarke’s first collection comes after years of working to capture the west of Ireland rural community in which she was raised and to reflect the challenges of one’s middle life years. There have been many magazine and anthology appearances and several awards. The opening poem ‘Honey’ has the power of both Frost and Heaney in its telling of the shooting of a sheep dog accused of wreaking havoc with a neighbour’s flock:

thirty ewes dead of dying,
mangled in barbed wire, lamb-beds hanging out.

The poet’s father

…drags her by the scruff,
leaves her at their feet. He says nothing
when he comes in, says little for weeks.

As in Robert Frost, reported speech in its choice of words and tone is key to the characterisation of many of these poems. The narrative often seems spare and plain:

Some summer’s day take the ferry to Clare Island,
see a black and white tower overlooking Clew Bay,
where I first heard my mother say the rosary for sailors,
watched her fry herring on the wood-burning stove.

Though the music of place names and the internal rhymes carry the reader confidently into the remembered or, in the case of this poem ‘Lighthouse Keeper’, the imagined past. The juxtaposition of the rosary and the frying are telling: belief and faith are a daily matter as necessary and natural as breathing. ‘…since they unmanned the lantern’ the keeper’s days are ‘landlocked’ and he’s ‘washed up like wreckage'; Jane Clarke is memorialising in her poetry both departed individuals and the disappearance of the lives they led.

Place names and the cadence of a regional saying are what one expects from any poet rooted in rural Ireland. As in Seamus Heaney ( how can one not mention Heaney?) Jane Clarke’s poems employ the lexicon of her bro, her patch: we have references to a ‘haggard’, ‘callows’, ‘flaggers'; there’s loosestrife, bell heather, jewelreed and ling growing.

Another point of reference might be Michael Longley, with short, spare, jewelled pieces such as ‘Let there be’, ‘all I will need’, and ‘Dropping Slow’. Again, the space between lines, the precise movement and economy of words is consummate. These qualities are exemplified in ‘Back of an envelope’ which I shall quote in its entirety:

I don’t know what’s come over your father,
my mother says on the phone. He left
a note on the back of an envelope –
gone herding, won’t be long.

Where did he think I’d think he was gone?
All those years if I asked where he was going,
where he had been, he’d act like I’d tethered him
to a post, and then today he leaves a note.

That monologue catches the voice as it works out the import of language and tone and carries the reader with that process to the realisation that a shift in lives has taken place; the farmer knows it and will lead his wife to that recognition. A point in the aging of one’s life has been reached: they will both have to prepare themselves for darker days. His life and their marriage, like everything else, is finite.

The River is a collection of poems, not prose masquerading as poetry. Jane Clarke’s lines are honed, measured, finely and finally settled on. She has many of the qualities of her mentor and name-sake Gillian: strength and originality of metaphor, an ear for the music of language and an ability to allow the poem space to accommodate the reader. I recommend The River to readers and writers of poetry.

Tony Curtis

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