Ice by Gillian Clarke | Paperback | Barnes & Noble


by Gillian Clarke

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The European winters of 2009 and 2010 serve as inspiration for the evocative poems in this collection that anxiously yet joyfully unite the seasons and creatures of the planet. The extremity of those record-setting winters in the UK redefined all seasons for the poet, and her notion that nature asserted itself and renewed the environment for the imagination is


The European winters of 2009 and 2010 serve as inspiration for the evocative poems in this collection that anxiously yet joyfully unite the seasons and creatures of the planet. The extremity of those record-setting winters in the UK redefined all seasons for the poet, and her notion that nature asserted itself and renewed the environment for the imagination is conveyed in poems such as “Polar,” in which a polar bear rug transforms personal and ecological longing into a creative act. The compilation presents commissioned pieces written during the author’s time as National Poet of Wales, including poems for Haiti and Guardian features for Christmas and Valentine’s Day.

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Carcanet Press, Limited
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By Gillian Clarke

Carcanet Press Ltd

Copyright © 2012 Gillian Clarke
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84777-688-4



    Snowlight and sunlight, the lake glacial.
    Too bright to open my eyes
    in the dazzle and doze
    of a distant January afternoon.

    It's long ago and the house naps in the plush silence
    of a house asleep, like absence,
    I'm dreaming on the white bear's shoulder,
    paddling the slow hours, my fingers in his fur.

    His eyes are glass, each hair a needle of light.
    He's pegged by his claws to the floor like a shirt on the line.
    He is a soul. He is what death is. He is transparency,
    a loosening floe on the sea.

    But I want him alive.
    I want him fierce
    with belly and breath and growl and beating heart,
    I want him dangerous,

    I want to follow him over the snows
    between the immaculate earth and now,
    between the silence and the shot that rang
    over the ice at the top of the globe,

    when the map of the earth was something we knew by heart,
    and they had not shot the bear,
    had not loosed the ice,
    had not, had not ...


    Where beech cast off her clothes
    frost has got its knives out.

    This is the chemistry of ice,
    the stitchwork, the embroidery,
    the froth and the flummery.

    Light joins in. It has a point to make
    about haloes and glories,
    spectra and reflection.

    It reflects on its own miracle,
    the first imagined day
    when the dark was blown

    and there was light.

    Advent Concert

    Landâf Cathedral

    First frost, November. World is steel,
    a ghost of goose down feathering the air.
    In the square, cars idle to their stalls, as cattle
    remembering their place in the affair.
    Headlamps bloom and die; a hullabaloo
    dances on ice to the golden door.

    Inside a choir of children sing, startled
    at a rising hum over their shoulders
    like a wind off the sea, boulders
    rolled in the swell as, sweet and low,
    Treorchy Male Voice Choir's basso profundo
    whelms them in its flow and undertow,

    and hearts hurt with the mystery,
    the strange repeated story
    of carol, candlelight and choir,
    of something wild out there, white
    bees of the Mabinogi at the window,
    night swirling with a swarm of early snow.


    When the white bear came from the north
    its paws were roses,
    its breath a garland,
    its fur splinters of steel.

    Where it lapped at the lip of the river,
    water held its breath.
    Where it trod, trees struck silver,
    fields lay immaculate.

    The river froze, and broke, and froze,
    its heart slowed in its cage,
    the moon a stone
    in its throat.

    The Geminids come and go.
    Voyager crosses the far shores of space,
    leaving us lonely,
    stirred by story.

    On the longest night the moon is full,
    an answering antiphon
    of dark and light.
    In winter's cold eye, a star.


    As if on its way to the sea
    the river grew heavy,
    a knife of pain in its heart,
    slowed, slewed to a halt,

    words slurred in its mouth
    frozen in a dream of death,
    came to, foot on the clutch,
    engine running.

    Struck dumb,
    in a curb of ice
    stilled in its sleep
    under a hail of stars.

    Where a river barge cuts upstream
    in aching cold the surface cracks.
    The drowned stir in their dream
    as boat and boatman pass.

    The shoals lie low,
    silvers of elver, salmon like stones.
    The backwash cuts the floe
    to spars and bones,

    the brimming ribcage
    of a drowned beast.

    Ice Music

    Locked twelve floors up over the frozen Ely,
    I show you the silver bones of the river
    afloat on black water.

    A hundred miles away, checking the sheep late,
    you show me the light of the full moon through the larches
    magnified in every lengthening snow-lens.

    Stretched between us across the cryosphere,
    white counties, fields, towns, motorway, blocked B roads,
    the deepening geography of snow.

    We both hear the music, the high far hum of ice,
    strung sound, feather-fall, a sigh of rime,
    fog-blurred syllables of trees, sap stilled to stone,

    morning and evening, a moan of expanding ice
    a timpani of plates colliding, a cry of icicles
    tonguing the flutes of our tin roof.

    Home for Christmas

    A pause in the blizzard and you fetch me home
    by motorway and marble corridor,
    the last hill from Blaen Glowan slippery, slow,
    the car crawls slipshod to the door.

    Tonight we lie together listening
    as miles of silence deepen to the coast.
    Snow blinds the rooflights.
    Roads forget themselves to north and east.

    I sleep, wake, sleep again dreaming in stories,
    turning, turning, landlocked in a myth,
    our white room drifted deep
    in moon-work of the silversmith.

    All night a breath from the east
    drives drifts off the fields through the avenue of beech
    to fill the lane with waves of a frozen sea
    so wild and still by morning nothing can pass.

    We rise, dress, light fires, carry hay
    to twelve ewes waiting hungry at the gate.
    Birds gather in the garden for their feed
    of crumbs, crusts, peelings, nuts and seed.

    Our wild-tame neighbours, fellow inhabitants,
    eye my scattering hands in hunger's silence.
    I set soup simmering, dough rising in a bowl
    as in the old days in our early glow,

    like being new here, in this house, this place,
    like being young and bold, bravely in love,
    like staying alive and brazening out the ice
    and snow, like being up for it, the shove

    to sharpen up, to take the great adventure
    of living the difficult day, the glamour.


    We're brought to our senses, awake
    to the black and whiteness of world.
    Snow's sensational. It tastes
    of ice and fire. Hold a handful of cold.

    Ball it between your palms
    to throw at the moon. Relish its plushy creak.
    Shake blossoms from chestnut and beech,
    gather its laundered linen in your arms.

    A twig of witch hazel from the ghost-garden
    burns like myrrh in this room. Listen!
    Ice is whispering. Night darkens,
    the mercury falls in the glass, glistening.

    Motorways muffled in silence, lorries stranded
    like dead birds, airports closed, trains trackless.
    White paws lope the river on plates of ice
    in the city's bewildered wilderness.

    White Nights

    In the luminous pages of the night,
    under the deep drift of the duvet,
    that silence like the world gone deaf.

    In clouds of cold our bedroom holds its breath
    like wartime winters. Roads unmake themselves
    across a trackless land caught in the Mabinogi.

    I'm wakeful, stalled by a stuttering line of verse.
    By dawn, the garden hasn't stirred. Not a breath
    shakes off the snow. Trees stand like death,

    locked in that cold wedding in the story,
    house, fields, in forever's frozen air.
    Day after day the wait, weighted, bridal.

    This is what Marged knew under this roof,
    thatched then, I suppose, a hundred years ago,
    quilt and carthen weighing her bones like stone,

    hay-dust, cold, the sickness in her lungs, the knell
    of the cow lowing to be milked, kicking its stall,
    lamp and stove to light, on her last winter dawn.

    carthen: a traditional Welsh blanket

    In the Bleak Midwinter

    trees stand in their bones
    asleep in the creak of a wind
    with snow on its mind.

    Come spring they'll need reminding
    how to weep, bleed, bud, grow rings
    for cruck, or crib, or cross,

    to break again in leaf.
    The heartwood's stone, grief
    of sap-tears frozen at the root.

    While trees are dreaming green,
    ice unfurls its foliage
    on gutter, gate and hedge,

    ghost-beauty cold as snow,
    like the first forest, long ago.

    Hunting the Wren

    Dawn a wound in the east.
    The garden's a ghost.

    I set the kettle purring,
    switch on the tree lights
    in the glass-walled room.

    Above the flight to Bethlehem,
    the angels and cherubim,
    the electric galaxies,

    on the tree's top mast
    something alive, a dark star,
    a flutter of flight,

    of bird-bewilderment.
    A wren has dreamed a forest
    multiplied in glass,

    as tree dreamed bird into being,
    its boughs and shadows spread
    on a forest floor of snow.

    I catch it in two hands,
    a cup of wren,
    release it to a frozen land.

    Morning again and it's back,
    a star of bird shit on the piano.
    Good luck, my mother used to say.

    Carol of the Birds

    Winter sun is cold and low,
    cry the kite and crake the crow,
    bird of flame, bird of shadow,
    ballad of blood on snow.

    Owls are calling llw, llw, llw,

    Small birds come without a sound,
    starving to the feeding ground
    where the robin with his wound
    carols the ice-bound land.

    Noctua, hibou, gwdihw,
    owl's lullaby – who? who? who?

    The story tells of pain and blood,
    the troubles of a restless world,
    a star that lights the snowy fields,
    towards a newborn child.

    Owls are calling llw, llw, llw,
    noctua, hibou, gwdihw,
    owl's lullaby – who? who? who?

    Freeze 1947

    Long ago in the first white world, school closed.
    The park disappeared, the lake froze,
    the town lost its way, sea struck dumb
    on the beach. Birds held their tongues.

    Land lay spellbound. World was an ice garden
    beyond fern-frozen glass. Trees held out white arms,
    waltzed with the wind and froze to stone.
    On doorsteps bottled milk stood stunned.

    The polar bear rug on the living room floor
    rose from the dead, shook snow from its fur
    and stood magnificent on all fours,
    transfigured, breathing flowers.

    And a girl on the road from school was stolen, her breath
    a frozen rose, her marble sleep, death.
    They hid the paper. 'Babe in the Wood' it said.
    I thought of her school desk, its name-carved lid

    slammed on slurred air, her face blurred
    over books her eyes of ice would never read,
    her china inkwell emptied of its words,
    the groove for her pen like a shallow grave.

    Freeze 2010

    A girl found murdered by the road,
    like detritus half-buried in the snow.

    Grief howls in a suburban street, wild
    as Demeter, who put the world to sleep,

    a mother in perpetual winter weeps
    for Persephone, her stolen child.

    New Year

    In the fields cold deepens in layers.
    Sheeted in blizzard the farms drowse
    in the dark, their living names ablaze
    across the fields in golden windows.

    Dead houses shut their blind eyes long ago.
    Their dead lie ruined under snow.

    See the footprint of the old school by the Glowan,
    whose waters under the bridge chant children's games;
    the wound of a forge, where still the field-name
    rings with iron, the stamp of a hoof on stone.

    List the farms, the fields all gone to earth,
    the heroes, heroines; record the deaths
    of beloved friend, lover, father, others
    who fell to the gun, sickness, despair.

    Incant their litany, make rosaries
    of their names, tell their stories.
    Inscribe their names in gold on rows
    of slate like bedheads in the snow.

    Marged Blaen Cwrt, poets of Sarnicol, Mounthill,
    neighbours Tommy, Ithien, Angela,
    and Simon, friend of poets, all now
    fallen with the leaves, the falling snow,

    or that mythic girl taken by Gwyn ap Nudd,
    kept from her lover, locked away
    like a corm in darkness, until winter eased
    to spring and the lengthening day.

    Captor and lover battled through the cold,
    winter with spring, darkness with light.
    till a blackbird sang in a blossoming blackthorn tree,
    and winter let her go, and she was free.

    The Dead after the Thaw

    Starved birds in the snows of '47,
    when no one had bread to spare.

    A blackbird who sang all summer
    stiff as a glove in the snow,

    its eye not a gold ring,
    but a pane of ice.

    The swan who never came back from the dead
    to her mate on the nest he rebuilt for her.

    The old in city flats found three months dead,
    in stinking garbage, a drift of junk mail, bills.

    A poet dead with private cancer
    in a country town.

    The tramp they found in a field
    after the thaw.

    When they lifted him, meltwater
    streamed from his open mouth.


Excerpted from Ice by Gillian Clarke. Copyright © 2012 Gillian Clarke. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Gillian Clarke is a poet, a writer, a creative writing tutor at the University of Glamorgan, and the president and founder of Ty Newydd Writers' Centre in Wales. She was the inaugural Capital Poet for Cardiff and in 2008 was appointed the National Poet of Wales. Her works include Collected Poems, Making the Beads for the Dead, and Recipe for Water.

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