MEMORABLE IMAGERY Irish poet Jane Clarke, whose spare, lucid style is enriched by powerful imagery. Pic: Elementum/CC0 1.0
Fr Kevin Hegarty
Recently I have had the pleasure of discovering the poetry of Jane Clarke. A friend gave me the gift of ‘When The Tree Falls’ (Bloodaxe Books). Both it and her first book ‘The River’ have attracted critical acclaim. She has also won a Hennessy Literary Award and has been honoured at Listowel Writers’ Week.
Born in 1961, Clarke grew up on a farm in Roscommon. She now lives in rural Wickow with her partner, Isobel O’Duffy. Not surprisingly, given this background, an understanding of and a reverence for the natural environment pervades her poetry.
Graham Greene once wrote of the door that opens in childhood and lets the future in. Literature was part of the backdrop of Clarke’s early life.
Her father liked to quote lines from Yeats and Shakespeare. Her mother taught her to recite poetry. She became an avid reader. Her mother recalls an incident where Jane remained totally absorbed in a book while she, her husband and son were sweeping a flash flood out of the back door. On Saturdays, Jane would cycle the five miles to Roscommon town library, finding the books their ‘a marvellous liberation’.
At secondary school, she liked the poems of WB Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and William Shakespeare, as represented in the famed ‘Soundings’ anthology. The poetic songs of Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Joan Armatrading provided the soundtrack for her teens.
Though literature was always her first academic love, she did not start writing until her middle age. After studying literature and philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, she worked in community development, adult education and psychotherapy.
She attended her first creative writing class in her early 40s. It led her to studying for an MPhil at the University of South Wales, where her turtor was the distinguished poet Gillian Clarke. Jane has also been deeply influenced by the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Seamus Heaney. She has developed a spare and limpid style, enriched by memorable images.
Threaded through ‘When The Tree Falls’ is a series of elegiac poems about her father as remembered in the fragility of his final days.
He was a farmer and a cattle dealer, rooted in the soil of Roscommon and steeped in traditional rural lore:
Winter mornings he was gone before dawn
to fairs in Ballyhaunis, Claremorris, Ballinrobe.
He came home with much on his coat,
smelling of Shorthorns and Herefords.
Sometimes he told us who he’d met,
the blindman who knew each of his cows
by their lowing, the widow who bargained
harder than any dealer. But mostly he sat
distracted by prices, cigarette smoke
spiralling to the kitchen ceiling, blue cards
spread around the table.
Like most men of his generation, Clarke’s father was not given to colourful display. There was nothing of the peacock in his make up. In a poem that is both humorous and poignant, the poet remembers a yellow jumper her mother bought for him:
There weren’t married long when she saw it,
a turtle-necked jumper in Murray’s window –
yellow as happiness, as the flash on a goldfinch’s wings.
She imagined him wearing at the fairs,
standing out from all the rest in their greens
and greys. Eighteen shillings and sixpence,
she paid for it on tick, thruppence a week.
For all that he smiled on his birthday,
it remained on the back of the bedroom chair.
One day she folded and packed it in the chest
with the spare candles, letters, photographs
and the other questions she didn’t ask.
She likes to think of him there, among pens
of breeding heifers, weanlings and hoggets,
splendid in yellow.
She images his physical decline as death approaches:
When he falls asleep
At the kitchen table and drops
another cup, my mother bends
without a word, sweeps up
the broken pieces in her hands,
looking out for shards in case
he wanders barefoot in the night.
The poem ‘Respects’ is a moving evocation of an Irish rural funeral, as they were in pre-pandemic days, and hopefully may be again:
From Kiltoom, Creemully Loughglynn,
Kilbegnet, Lecarrow, Athleague,
Creggs, Carrowkeel, Ballinleg,
the come to pay their respects.
They shake hands with us, stand
by his body and bow their heads:
cattle men, sheep men, carpenters,
teachers, foresters, nurses, vets.
They say prayers, lay their hands
on his chest and bless themselves,
then fill the kitchen with the man
they knew, a grand man altogether,
always out early, hardy as a wild duck,
a good judge of a bullock, fierce man
to work, he had woeful hands,
a man of his word.
Jane Clarke is making a fine contribution
to Irish poetry. To paraphrase the exhortation in the Old Testament, give success to the work of her hands and mind.