Read an Excerpt
By Gillian Clarke
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 2012 Gillian Clarke
All rights reserved.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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,
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?
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.
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.
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.
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