Nov 13 2023
Poetry review – A CHANGE IN THE AIR: Alwyn Marriage finds much to enjoy in the latest collection by Jane Clarke
I have known and loved Jane Clarke’s poetry for some years, so I approached this new collection with enthusiasm – and I was not disappointed. I admit that it is rare for me not to enjoy a poet whose language was formed in Ireland, but even accepting that slight bias, Jane Clarke’s words resonate deeply with me. Her delicacy of expression, her minutely-observed descriptions, her almost teasing understatements, all bring delight.
In A Change in the Air, there are, unsurprisingly, tastes of Ireland, such as ‘ ‘She kneels to light the cipeens / piled on last night’s embers’ (“After”) as well as references to The Troubles (“Family Bible”), to the potato famine (“Lazy Beds”) and the emigration that followed (“Passage”). However, as one would expect from a poet of this calibre and maturity, the poetry is universal and the occasional Irish twinges are never quaint or exclusive.
Clarke appears to relish the opportunity to draw with a fine pencil, as she offers precise descriptions of ordinary events and experiences. So we have her mother churning butter (which I particularly enjoyed because my mother, as a young girl, once won a prize for her butter churning!). Who else but Clarke would compare the forming balls of butter to new potatoes? ’till the butter balls clustered / floating yellow as freshly dug Queens’ (“Butter for Queens” ).
More poignantly, Clarke hints at her mother’s developing dementia in several poems. For example:
something has slipped into her mind and every night like a stoat among voles, it hunts down her memories. ("Raspberries")
This first, general, section is one of the strongest parts of the book, and in the poems Clarke also includes descriptions of homely, every-day activities, such as making yoghurt, storing eggs and milking a cow by hand.
The second section, “Pit Ponies of Glendason”, takes us down into the lead mines, which were active in the part of Ireland where Clarke was raised, from the early 19th century until about 1957. During those years, men and ponies shared the work and the dangers of mining, and when trouble arose, it was fairly obvious that the ponies were as aware as the miners themselves:
comrades in toil and first to halt legs locked at a sudden rumbling, a change in the air or the rush of running water. ("Pit Ponies of Glendasan")
Another of Clarke’s precise descriptions, seemingly undramatic and yet bringing the beautiful bird of prey into the mind’s eye of the reader, is in “Mullacor”:
Above them, forked tail and finger-tipped wings, a lone red kite drifts bronze as withered bracken'.
A section about the first world war follows, in “All the way home”. I generally feel that it is tricky to attempt, in the twenty first century, to write about WW1. It was done so comprehensively and memorably by the war poets of the time, that it is questionable whether later generations can contribute anything worthwhile. What can any poet add to that corpus of lived experience? However, using understatement again, Clarke manages to make her words resonate and does, in my opinion, add something valuable by documenting some of the history of the Auerbach family who lived at the time, and in particular Albert Auerbach who fought in WW1 and was killed in September 1918.
The first poem in this section, “September 1914”, is a simple and unsentimental evocation of a young man going off to war. And in a subsequent poem, “After we’ve gone”, the poet paints for us a battle scene after the war, where the minutiae of ordinary life are set in sharp contrast to the killing that has gone before:
When I try to forget what I've seen I think of my neighbours with rakes and scythes between hedges scented by honeysuckle and wild rose.
A couple of pages later, we are brought up sharp by Clarke’s observation of the universality of war, in which she brings together the Trojan War and WW1, in “Priam of Troy”. And, of course, any soldier caught up in the horrors of war, will treasure memories of home, which Clarke evokes in such descriptions as ‘a sea of honey-scented ling, / purple flowers teeming with bees.’ (“Ling”).
The next section, “You could say it begins”, is based on the division created by the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and the troubles that ensued. I did not find this section, which seemed to be more concerned with documenting lists, quite as successful as the others, though I realise that it is important for any poet from Ireland to attempt to address the thorny problems of the island’s recent history.
One exception to my lack of enthusiasm for this section is “Family Bible”, which ends by revealing that
when a child is ill a harvest fails or a well runs dry, we set our differences aside.
The next, untitled, section, brings nature to the fore again, and includes a few poems about birds. So we have the dipper (‘little blacksmith’), geese (‘yodeling and yelping’), chiffchaffs, robins and goldcrests (‘dropping light as twigs’) and little terns preparing for migration:
The sun and stars will guide them, and though they'll be hungry, thirsty, cold, the earth's magnetic field will pulse in their hearts like hope. ("Little Tern Colony, Kilcoole”)
The final section of this fine collection includes tender poems about Clarke’s wife, to whom the book is dedicated. The poet acknowledges that her parents faced something of a challenge in coming to terms with their daughter’s choice of life partner:
they'd have preferred a husband and children but their daughter loved a woman ("Spalls")
The way in which her parents came to accept their daughter’s choice is through engaging in mundane necessary tasks to help the couple, such as creating a garden. Clarke’s father, in particular, embodies a meaningful metaphor as he builds a wall ‘held together / by gravity and friction, hearted with handfuls of spalls’.
The poem, “Wife”, is not the last poem in the book, but it would have made a very fitting close to this section and to the collection as a whole:
Strange to use this word for the woman I love – is she my wife when she lays her head on my shoulder, when I whisper her name in the morning to see if she's awake, or when we plant bluebells under the oak where we buried one dog, three cats and a handful of dreams? I practise saying Isobel is my wife and it sings to the tune of my life.