Recipe for Water

Recipe for Water

by Gillian Clarke

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Using water as a contemplative device, this anthology examines themes of war, womanhood, time, and the environment. Individual poems focus on a range of topics—from the seemingly unremarkable contents of a bottle of spring water to the more global issue of rising ocean levels. Rain, drought, flood, thirst, rivers, and oceans inspire this thought-provoking


Using water as a contemplative device, this anthology examines themes of war, womanhood, time, and the environment. Individual poems focus on a range of topics—from the seemingly unremarkable contents of a bottle of spring water to the more global issue of rising ocean levels. Rain, drought, flood, thirst, rivers, and oceans inspire this thought-provoking exploration of the relationship between water and language.

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Carcanet Press, Limited
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A Recipe for Water

By Gillian Clarke

Carcanet Press Ltd

Copyright © 2009 Gillian Clarke
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84777-814-7


    First Words

    The alphabet of a house – air,
    breath, the creak of the stair.
    Downstairs the grown-ups' hullabaloo,
    or their hush as you fall asleep.

    You're learning the language: the steel slab
    of a syllable dropped at the docks; the two-beat word
    of the Breaksea lightship; the golden sentence
    of a train crossing the viaduct.

    Later, at Fforest, all the words are new.
    You are your grandmother's Cariad, not Darling.
    Tide and current are llanw, lli.
    The waves repeat their ll-ll-ll on sand.

    Over the sea the starlings come in paragraphs.
    She tells you a tale of a girl and a bird,
    reading it off the tide in lines of longhand
    that scatter to bits on the shore.

    The sea turns its pages, speaking in tongues.
    The stories are yours, and you are the story.
    And before you know it you'll know what comes
    from air and breath and off the page is all

    you'll want, like the sea's jewels in your hand,
    and the soft mutations of sea washing on sand.

    A Pocket Dictionary

    'Geiriadur Llogell Cymraeg a Saesoneg', 1861

    Fifty years. His handwriting, his name, address.
    Richards' Pocket Dictionary. 1861.
    My father's fingerprints. Mine over his.
    I look up a word, as I've so often done,
    without a thought beyond the page, the word.
    Now syllables flock like a whirr of redwings
    over the field of my mind. Here the world
    began, and then is now. I am searching
    for definitions, ambiguities, way
    down through the strata, topsoil, rubble,
    a band of clay, an inch or so of gravel,
    for a particular carbon-dated day,
    a seepage in the earth, a gleam of meaning,
    a sudden uprise of remembering.

    Glas y Dorlan

    So he said, 'Let's begin by naming the creatures.'
    Once in the Brecon Beacons we stopped for a picnic
    where the river roared headstrong down the mountain.

    A sudden electric blue, a shock through the heart.
    What was that? A bird diving faster than gravity
    into the pool and up with a fish in its beak.

    He spoke its name, doused in the shout of the falls.
    Fisher-bird, King of the Water, Pioden y Dwr,
    Glas y Dorlan.
Blue-by-the Riverbank.


    My mother, child of a tenant farm,
    learned her place from the landlord's man,
    his word 'Welsh' snapped, cutting, curt,
    a word that called her 'stranger'.

    So my mother would not say the word.
    but spat it out like a curse,
    a bitterness to be rid of,
    to be scoured from her mouth.

    My mother's word didn't sound
    like the name for a people,
    for 'us', for belonging,
    for a language older than legend;

    or like Nain on the farm, tucking me in
    with a prayer and 'Nos da, Cariad',
    or calling the hens in the morning, her voice
    all cluck and chuckle like scattering corn;

    or my father passing the time with stories
    as we drove to the sea, teaching me words,
    the 'gw' and 'w' of wind and water,
    the ll-ll-ll of waves on the shore.


    Little water-dog. They almost caught her –
    the surface closing over
    as the sounding rings of a splash
    smashed the moonlit water.

    It made its mark on the shore –
    paw-print of an otter
    and the peeled skull of a frog
    just after the slaughter.

    Frog caught on the quiet, quartered,
    till the skull was a moon
    as silvery clean as a spoon
    but colder, whiter.

    Father and daughter
    heard the frog cry 'Broga. Broga.'
    Then 'Dwr. Dwr,' said water
    as it swallowed the otter.

    The Fox and the Girl

    Once her father came home with a fox cub
    in his coat pocket. Lost in the city,
    shivering in rubbish outside the pub,
    the colour of conkers and as pretty

    as a puppy, its teeth like needles.
    It hissed in her arms, but she wheedled
    to keep it. When it bit her she cried
    for her bloody hand, and she cried

    when he said, 'Mae'n wyllt. It's a wild
    animal, not a pet for a child.'
    She could feel its life, its warm fur,
    its quick heart beating against her,

    and she hurt for its animal mystery,
    for the vanishing story of a girl
    and a fox lost for words
    in the secret forest.


    'Tell me the names for the hare!'
    "Sgwarnog for its long ears.
    Cochen for its red-brown fur.
    Ceinach for its intricate criss-cross track.
    Cath Eithin, Cath y Mynydd,
    Cat of the gorse, of the mountain.'

    There, alive, over the hedge,
    in the field by the cliff-path,
    one of her kindle, her kittens,
    a leveret alone, stone-still in its cwtsh
    till she comes at dusk to suckle it,
    murmuring mother tongue.


    for Edward Thomas

    No old machinery, no tangled chains
    of a harrow locked in rust and rising grasses,
    nor the fallen stones of ancient habitation
    where nettles feed on what we leave behind.
    Nothing but a careless compost heap
    warmed to a simmer of sickly pungency,
    lawn clippings we never moved, but meant to,

    and can't, now, because nettles have moved in,
    and it's your human words inhabit this.
    And, closer, look! The stems lean with the weight,
    the young of peacock butterflies, just hatched,
    their glittering black spines and spots of pearl.
    And I want to say to the dead, look what a poet sings
    to life: the bite of nettles, caterpillars, wings.

    A T-Mail to Keats

    Dear John Keats,

    I write to suggest that poets never die.
    The old poetry drums in the living tongue,
    phrase and image like bright stones in the stream
    of common speech, its cadences a beat
    that resonates as long as language lives.

    I want to talk with you of the new nature,
    of your grief at science for unweaving the rainbow.
    But listen to the poetry of light,
    the seven colours of coronas, glories, haloes,
    how no two people see the same rainbow.

    Oh, soon may science solve time's mystery!
    Already words can take flight from our hands
    over land and continents and seas,
    with the small sigh of a shooting star.
    If words can cross space, why not time?

    In hope, I send this message into space.
    May we meet over a verse, a glass
    or two of the blushful Hippocrene,
    a draught of vintage that hath been
    cooled a long age in the deep-delved earth

    in the ice-house of our refrigerator.

    In esteem.


    for Gwyn Thomas

    For so long a flame has flickered
    at the cromlech, at the crossroad,
    in encampment, hovel and castle,
    in the courts of minor princes.

    Song by firelight, gleam of a sword,
    the quiver of a harp string,
    reflections in the faces
    of those tranced by listening.

    The word is out. It crosses
    centuries, each one a torch,
    every syllable a heartbeat,
    every song a torch in the dark.

    Gwyn, we meet at the ford,
    to speak in tongues,
    to pass on simple truth,
    to torch the lies, the weasel words,

    burn off the fog of politics
    with poetry's flame,
    to illuminate
    the mind's manuscript.

    The Ledbury Muse


    A blackbird cuts a dash straight down Church Lane,
    picks scraps from the Market Hall. Again, again
    he skims the cobbles in the rising sun
    too quick to glimpse the fabulous flaw, his one
    rumoured white feather. Muse of the streets and yards,
    old as the town, rough scruff of a bird,
    five hundred years ago his voice was heard
    by drovers, strolling players, itinerant bards.
    He is silent now. This songless July morning
    before the news breaks, the blackbird's lost his voice.
    Rumour, footsteps, voices sound the space.
    It's our turn now to hold our ground with warning.
    To cry out against terror is what poetry's for,
    to admit our one white feather, our fatal, human flaw.

    A Recipe for Water

    for Sujata Bhatt

    Fifty feet down
    water flows in the dark.
    Rains that spent history
    seeping page by page
    through the strata,

    run black in the aquifers
    to rise bringing their gift,
    the formula like a spell,
    a gulp of cold that flares
    at the touch of light.

    Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Sodium,
    Chloride, Sulphate, Nitrate, Iron.

    Sip this, the poetry of stone,
    a mineral Latin in our blood, our bone.

    * * *

    The first word for water.
    Wysg. Usk. Esk. Wye.
    First clicks, clucks, monosyllables,
    sibilant spillings in imitation
    of the sound of all that shining.

    Or the sound of thirst,
    the suck and lap as a small pool ripples
    in the cup of two hands,
    an ecstasy of spill on skin, hair, mouth,
    drops beading the dust.

    * * *

    The second word for water.
    Dwfr. Dwr. Dyfroedd. Dover.

    Imagine the moment a man,
    a woman singing in a dark age,

    gazed from those chalk heights
    at the vast and broken seas

    and sang this word, song and word
    on the tongue, in the throat,

    finding a name for an element.
    Everywhere on earth, the first human word

    as small as the single drop of rain
    a blackbird needs to begin a dawn song.

    * * *

    That drop on the tongue
    was the first word in the world
    head back, eyes closed, mouth open
    to drink the rain
    wysg, uisc, dwr, hudra, aqua, agua, eau, wasser

    * * *

    You imagine me writing in the falling rain,
    rain on the roof, writing in whispers
    on the slates' lectern,
    rain spelling out each syllable
    like a child learning to read.

    But day after day
    no huff of rain
    on the roof,
    frost a dry breath on grass.

    The trees stop drinking,
    their secret roots a delta under the earth,
    their branches against the winter sky
    waiting for spring to make a move.

    Rain must relearn how to sound.
    March rain must learn to be wild,
    to fill the mouth of the west wind
    with salt skinned off the sea.

    So long the Atlantic has waited,
    dragging its anchor.
    These dry days and nights
    I feel its weight like gravity.

    * * *

    Weeks of journeys into frozen England.
    One dusk, the north-bound Pendolino
    leans out for the dance across the Midlands,
    creeping so slowly between claypits,

    canals and the backs of houses,
    that there's time for a woman's hands
    in a lit kitchen to turn on a tap
    and fill a bowl with what I know

    is my sweet mountain water
    brought all the way by gravity.


    After the theatre, stirred by song and story,
    we watch the winter stars from the balcony.

    Five floors down from our room in the hotel,
    two ice-floes in flux on flow. Each candela

    is a mute swan asleep, as white, as luminous
    on the black waters of the bay as ice.

    Stilled at the edge of the Severn's turbulence
    and the tangled waters of two river currents,

    their whiteness the definition of lumen,
    swans paired for life, a cob and his pen,

    wings and necks folded in one dream,
    and all the colours of white, which only seem,

    Sujata, the very opposite of the blackness
    of your black squirrel in Caracas,

    but are the same, the one
    white rainbow, black, one spectrum.

    * * *

    All the spare light in the world is stored
    in the folded wings of a pair of sleeping swans,

    all the world's spare water stacked miles deep
    in the waking ice of the glacier.

    The last star dissolves at the lost edge of the moon
    afloat on blue like Arctic ice, loosening.

    * * *

    At last a change in the weather.
    Frost gives up its grip,
    ice eases in the bones of trees.
    There is movement in the air,
    the Atlantic on the wind's breath,
    a touch of rain beginning.


    A Barge on the Severn

    after a painting by Colin Jones (1928–1967)

    Where river becomes estuary
    before losing its name to the sea,
    in water angled by a harbour wall,
    on the tilt of the tide's rise and fall
    between mudflats, saltmarsh and flood plain,
    a boat with the sea in its lap, or rain.

    He could have put the river to bed,
    baled out the barge, drowned to its gunwale
    in flood, in the hope of letting it float.
    But he caught the hour and held it,
    the cruciform spars of the stern where light
    and a salt wind off the channel

    still make its lost sail snap in a cross wind,
    and the colours brought home in his mind
    – red flaking and faded to rose,
    and the blue-green of water – have held
    forty years, while he, the barge, a particular
    hour, timbers, molecules, pigment, particles,

    are swept with the soils and silts of Pumlimon
    to become the Severn.


    After hours plodding uphill in something between
    rain and an Atlantic haar, we have come to this:
    two thousand feet above the Irish Sea,
    a pane of ice, and a muscle of pooling water,

    Pumlimon, where five rivers rise, a squelch
    of tussocky bog, and the cairn, Garn-fach Bugeilyn,
    where story tells us Cai and Bedwyr stood
    'in the highest wind in the world'.

    We witness a birth, uncertain of what is born,
    though we see it's alive, its pulsing placenta,
    Hafren, Sabrina, gurgling out of the earth,
    headwaters of a stream that will augment

    to a headlong hurtling force ready to swallow
    Vyrnwy, Stour, Teme, Avon, Afon and Wye,
    to bring mountain waters to lap at the thresholds
    of cities, to bear off the dead, to shove its way

    through limestone in the gorge at Ironbridge,
    to be fluent under bridges, to open its hands
    letting its multiple muscular waters spread,
    to become the estuary, to be lost in the sea.


        There is a gentle nymph not far from hence
        That with moist curb sways the smooth Severn stream.
        Sabrina is her name, a virgin pure
                 Milton, 'Comus'

    Before history there was mythology.
    Fingerprinted between the strata of story
    Is the human sign. We make a guess
    At who they were, and where and why it was.
    How the daughter of faithless Locrinus drowned
    Between an Ice Age and the Age of Stone
    To become the river-goddess, a curb in the river.
    Today in these fast waters you might glimpse
    In the sway of the currents the white limbs
    Of a girl caught in a shoal of silvers
    Turning and turning in the turbulence
    Among migrating salmon, sewin, elvers,
    Lampreys, eels taking their ancient water-roads
    Under the shadows of thousands of homing birds.


    stopped the throat of the Severn
    in the last Ice Age.
    so it slept three thousand years,
    locked in a frozen lake,

    thawed slowly,
    built power
    beyond Wenlock Edge,
    turned south-east,

    forced a six mile gorge through rock
    at Ironbridge, let loose
    the coal, iron, limestone, clay,
    that would change the world.


    Lured by the very thought of it, forty-nine feet,
    the second highest rise and fall in the world.
    Some mornings full to the brim, it slapped and curled
    over the prom, and by evening was so far out
    you couldn't tell sea from pools, pebbles, mudflats,
    wet acres of seaweed, shells, old rope, bird-bones,
    fishing lines hooked in the silt, worm-casts, stones,
    streams of ebbing water flashing with light.
    Once, on a strange beach, the Severn turned on us.
    It surged thundering up the steep sand,
    carried and cast us ashore like detritus
    then tried to drag us back on retreating waters,
    as when the sea-king stole the old man's daughters.


    The sea charges in
    against the outpour
    of a big, bold river.
    no holds barred.

    So a water-dragon is born.
    A self-powering soliton
    heaves upstream,
    rearing its crested head,

    past cathedrals, towns,
    a seven foot wave
    rolling up-country
    where no wave should be.

    It rips out river banks,
    nudges a stone from the stanchion
    of a bridge,
    sweeps footpaths away,

    carries off cars,
    the carcass of a sheep,
    tons of old red sandstone,
    and surfers hitching a ride.

    No entry to 68,000 wintering birds:
    dunlin back from Scandinavia to their usual place,
    the greatest gathering of shelduck in Europe,
    no entry to Bewick's swan,
    pintail, wigeon, redshank.

    No entry to the breeding grounds
    for curlew, oystercatcher.
    No entry to 30,000 homing salmon
    to great shoals of shad, lampreys, and sewin
    to spawn in the Usk and the Wye.

    No exit to millions of eels and elvers
    as they swim down river to the spawning grounds.

    No entry when they return in spring.
    as they swim down river to the spawning grounds.
    No entry when they return in spring.


    between a weather satellite
    wavering among the steady stars
    and seven swans tagged with transmitters,
    asleep on a lake in southern Finland.

    First light. Bewick's and Whooper swans
    wheel off the water, beating west,
    the Russian Arctic tundra out of mind,
    their future the washy estuaries
    of Severn, Dyfi, Neb or Ouse.

    It's nothing new, on wing, on foot,
    the hungry take to the roads of a restless earth,
    in flight from famine, slaughter, war,
    on ancient journeys across seas, deserts,
    across the latitudes and longitudes.

    But this is new, intimate, tracking
    the secret flight of a Bewick's swan,
    its heartbeat in my hand
    as it homes a thousand miles,
    to winter on wetlands in Wales.

    I fly with it, imagining space
    beating with luminous wings:
    satellites, angels, souls,
    the seven ghosts of Concorde
    blowing the firmament,

    the world's roads dark
    with human travellers,
    each caravan of hunger
    a mythic journey to an inn,
    in want of shelter, water, bread.


Excerpted from A Recipe for Water by Gillian Clarke. Copyright © 2009 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 and a writer whose works include Collected Poems and Making the Beads for the Dead. She tutors creative writing at the University of Glamorgan and is the president and founder of Ty Newydd, a national writers’ center in Wales. In 2008 she was appointed the National Poet of Wales.

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