The Welsh publishing house Gwasg Gomer published Gillian Clarke's first full collection of poems, The Sundial, in 1978. In the twenty years since then the poet has become one of the best-loved and most widely read writers of Wales, well-known for her readings, for her radio work and her workshops. Gillian Clarke is a severe critic of her own poemsCollected Poems includes all that she wishes to preserve of her work to date.
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By Gillian Clarke
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 1997 Gillian Clarke
All rights reserved.
Owain was ill today. In the night
He was delirious, shouting of lions
In the sleepless heat. Today, dry
And pale, he took a paper circle,
Laid it on the grass which held it
With curling fingers. In the still
Centre he pushed the broken bean
Stick, gathering twelve fragments
Of stone, placed them at measured
Distances. Then he crouched, slightly
Trembling with fever, calculating
The mathematics of sunshine.
He looked up, his eyes dark,
Intelligently adult as though
The wave of fever taught silence
And immobility for the first time.
Here, in his enforced rest, he found
Deliberation, and the slow finger
Of light, quieter than night lions,
More worthy of his concentration.
All day he told the time to me.
All day we felt and watched the sun
Caged in its white diurnal heat,
Pointing at us with its black stick.
As far as I am concerned
We are driving into oblivion.
On either side there is nothing,
And beyond your driving
Shaft of light it is black.
You are a miner digging
For a future, a mineral
Relationship in the dark.
I can hear the darkness drip
From the other world where people
Might be sleeping, might be alive.
Certainly there are white
Gates with churns waiting
For morning, their cream standing.
Once we saw an old table
Standing square on the grass verge.
Our lamps swept it clean, shook
The crumbs into the hedge and left it.
A tractor too, beside a load
Of logs, bringing from a deeper
Dark a damp whiff of the fungoid
Sterility of the conifers.
Complacently I sit, swathed
In sleepiness. A door shuts
At the end of a dark corridor.
Ahead not a cat's eye winks
To deceive us with its green
Invitation. As you hurl us
Into the black contracting
Chasm, I submit like a blind
And folded baby, being born.
Snow on the Mountain
There was a girl riding a white pony
Which seemed an elemental part
Of the snow. A crow cut a clean line
Across the hill, which we grasped as a rope
To pull us up the pale diagonal.
The point was to be first at the top
Of the mountain. Our laughter bounced far
Below us like five fists full of pebbles. About us
Lay the snow, deep in the hollows,
Very clean and dry, untouched.
I arrived breathless, my head breaking
The surface of the glittering light, thinking
No place could claim more beauty, white
Slag tips like cones of sugar spun
By the pit wheels under Machen mountain.
I sat on a rock in the sun, watching
My snowboys play. Pit villages shine
Like anthracite. Completed, the pale rider
Rode away. I turned to him and saw
His joy fall like the laughter down a dark
Crack. The black crow shadowed him.
You ask how it is. I will tell you.
There is no glass. The air spins in
The stone rectangle. We warm our hands
With apple wood. Some of the smoke
Rises against the ploughed, brown field
As a sign to our neighbours in the
Four folds of the valley that we are in.
Some of the smoke seeps through the stones
Into the barn where it curls like fern
On the walls. Holding a thick root
I press my bucket through the surface
Of the water, lift it brimming and skim
The leaves away. Our fingers curl on
Enamel mugs of tea, like ploughmen.
The stones clear in the rain
Giving their colours. It's not easy.
There are no brochure blues or boiled sweet
Reds. All is ochre and earth and cloud-green
Nettles tasting sour and the smells of moist
Earth and sheep's wool. The wattle and daub
Chimney hood has decayed away, slowly
Creeping to dust, chalking the slate
Floor with stories. It has all the first
Necessities for a high standard
Of civilised living: silence inside
A circle of sound, water and fire,
Light on uncountable miles of mountain
From a big, unpredictable sky,
Two rooms, waking and sleeping,
Two languages, two centuries of past
To ponder on, and the basic need
To work hard in order to survive.
I am sitting in a strange room listening
For the wrong baby. I don't love
This baby. She is sleeping a snuffly
Roseate, bubbling sleep; she is fair;
She is a perfectly acceptable child.
I am afraid of her. If she wakes
She will hate me. She will shout
Her hot midnight rage, her nose
Will stream disgustingly and the perfume
Of her breath will fail to enchant me.
To her I will represent absolute
Abandonment. For her it will be worse
Than for the lover cold in lonely
Sheets; worse than for the woman who waits
A moment to collect her dignity
Beside the bleached bone in the terminal ward.
As she rises sobbing from the monstrous land
Stretching for milk-familiar comforting,
She will find me and between us two
It will not come. It will not come.
On the hottest, stillest day of the summer
A calf was born in a field
At Pant-y-Cetris; two buzzards
Measured the volume of the sky;
The hills brimmed with incoming
Night. In the long grass we could see
The cow, her sides heaving, a focus
Of restlessness in the complete calm,
Her calling at odds with silence.
The light flowed out leaving stars
And clarity. Hot and slippery, the scalding
Baby came, and the cow stood up, her cool
Flanks like white flowers in the dark.
We waited while the calf struggled
To stand, moved as though this
Were the first time. I could feel the soft sucking
Of the new-born, the tugging pleasure
Of bruised reordering, the signal
Of milk's incoming tide, and satisfaction
Fall like a clean sheet around us.
The road unwinding under our wheels
New in the headlamps like a roll of foil.
The rain is a recorder writing tunes
In telegraph wires, kerbs and cats' eyes,
Reflections and the lights of little towns.
He turns his head to look at me.
'Why are you quiet?' Shiny road rhythm,
Rain rhythm, beat of the windscreen wipers,
I push my knee against his in the warmth
And the car thrusts the dark and rain away.
The child sleeps, and I reflect, as I breathe
His brown hair, and watch the apple they gave him
Held in his hot hands, that a tree must ache
With the sweet weight of the round rosy fruit,
As I with Dylan's head, nodding on its stalk.
I can remember you, child,
As I stood in a hot, white
Room at the window watching
The people and cars taking
Turn at the traffic lights.
I can remember you, our first
Fierce confrontation, the tight
Red rope of love which we both
Fought over. It was a square
Environmental blank, disinfected
Of paintings or toys. I wrote
All over the walls with my
Words, coloured the clean squares
With the wild, tender circles
Of our struggle to become
Separate. We want, we shouted,
To be two, to be ourselves.
Neither won nor lost the struggle
In the glass tank clouded with feelings
Which changed us both. Still I am fighting
You off, as you stand there
With your straight, strong, long
Brown hair and your rosy,
Defiant glare, bringing up
From the heart's pool that old rope,
Tightening about my life,
Trailing love and conflict,
As you ask may you skate
In the dark, for one more hour.
It was good tonight
To polish brass with you,
Our hands slightly gritty
With Brasso, as they would feel
If we'd been in the sea, salty.
It was as if we burnished
Our friendship, polished it
Until all the light-drowning
Tarnish of deceit
Were stroked away. Patterns
Of incredible honesty
Delicately grew, revealed
Quite openly to the pressure
Of the soft, torn rag.
We made a yellow-gold
Still-life out of clocks,
Candlesticks and kettles.
My sadness puzzled you.
I rubbed the full curve
Of an Indian goblet,
Feeling its illusory
Heat. It cooled beneath
My fingers and I read
In the braille formality
Of pattern, in the leaf
And tendril and stylised tree,
That essentially each
Object remains cold,
Separate, only reflecting
The other's warmth.
The cat walks. It listens, as I do,
To the wind which leans its iron
Shoulders on our door. Neither
The purr of a cat nor my blood
Runs smoothly for elemental fear
Of the storm. This then is the big weather
They said was coming. All the signs
Were bad, the gulls coming in white,
Lapwings gathering, the sheep too
Calling all night. The gypsies
Were making their fires in the woods
Down there in the east ... always
A warning. The rain stings, the whips
Of the laburnum hedge lash the roof
Of the cringing cottage. A curious
Calm, coming from the storm, unites
Us, as we wonder if the work
We have done will stand. Will the tyddyn,
In its group of strong trees on the high
Hill, hold against the storwm Awst
Running across hills where everything
Alive listens, pacing its house, heart still?
Death of a Young Woman
She died on a hot day. In a way
Nothing was different. The stretched white
Sheet of her skin tightened no further.
She was fragile as a yacht before,
Floating so still on the blue day's length,
That one would not know when the breath
Blew out and the sail finally slackened.
Her eyes had looked opaquely in the
Wrong place to find those who smiled
From the bedside, and for a long time
Our conversations were silent.
The difference was that in her house
The people were broken by her loss.
He wept for her and for the hard tasks
He had lovingly done, for the short,
Fierce life she had lived in the white bed,
For the burden he had put down for good.
As we sat huddled in pubs supporting
Him with beer and words' warm breath,
We felt the hollowness of his release.
Our own ungrateful health prowled, young,
Gauche about her death. He was polite,
Isolated. Free. No point in going home.
At the end of the hot day it rains
Softly, stirring the smells from the raked
Soil. In her sundress and shorts she rocks
On the swing, watching the rain run down
Her brown arms, hands folded warm between
Small thighs, watching her white daps darken
And soak in the cut and sodden grass.
She used to fling her anguish into
My arms, staining my solitude with
Her salt and grimy griefs. Older now
She runs, her violence prevailing
Against silence and the Avenue's
Complacency, I her hatred's object.
Her dress, the washed green of deck chairs, sun
Bleached and chalk-sea rinsed, colours the drops,
And her hair a flag, half and then full
Mast in the apple-trees, flies in the face
Of the rain. Raised now her hands grip tight
The iron rods, her legs thrusting the tide
Of rain aside until, parallel
With the sky, she triumphs and gently
Falls. A green kite. I wind in the string.
And this from the second or third millenium
B.C., a female, aged about twenty-two.
A white, fine skull, full up with darkness
As a shell with sea, drowned in the centuries.
Small, perfect. The cranium would fit the palm
Of a man's hand. Some plague or violence
Destroyed her, and her whiteness lay safe in a shroud
Of silence, undisturbed, unrained on, dark
For four thousand years. Till a tractor in summer
Biting its way through the longcairn for supplies
Of stone, broke open the grave and let a crowd of light
Stare in at her, and she stared quietly back.
As I look at her I feel none of the shock
The farmer felt as, unprepared, he found her.
Here in the Museum, like death in hospital,
Reasons are given, labels, causes, catalogues.
The smell of death is done. Left, only her bone
Purity, the light and shade beauty that her man
Was denied sight of, the perfect edge of the place
Where the pieces join, with no mistakes, like boundaries.
She's a tree in winter, stripped white on a black sky,
Leafless formality, brow, bough in fine relief.
I, at some other season, illustrate the tree
Fleshed, with woman's hair and colours and the rustling
Blood, the troubled mind that she has overthrown.
We stare at each other, dark into sightless
Dark, seeing only ourselves in the black pools,
Gulping the risen sea that booms in the shell.
Dyddgu Replies to Dafydd 1
All year in open places, underneath
the frescoed forest ceiling,
we have made ceremony
out of this seasonal love.
Dividing the lead-shade as divers white
in green pools we rose to dry
islands of sudden sun. Then
love seemed generosity.
Original sin I whitened from your
mind, my colours influenced
your flesh, as sun on the floor
and warm furniture of a church.
So did our season bloom in mild weather,
reflected gold like butter
under chins, repeatedly
unfolding to its clock of seed.
Autumn, our forest room is growing cold.
I wait, shivering, feeling a
dropping sun, a coming dark,
your heart changing the subject.
The season coughs as it falls, like a coal;
the trees ache. The forest falls
to ruin, a roofless minster
where only two still worship.
Love still, like sun, a vestment, celebrates,
its warmth about our shoulders.
I dread the day when Dyddgu's once
loved name becomes a common cloak.
Your touch is not so light. I grow heavy.
I wait too long, grow anxious,
note your changing gestures, fear
The winter stars are flying and the owls
sing. You are packing your songs
in a sack, narrowing your
words, as you stare at the road.
The feet of young men beat, somewhere far off
on the mountain. I would women
had roads to tread in winter
and other lovers waiting.
A raging rose all summer falls to snow,
keeps its continuance in
frozen soil. I must be patient
for the breaking of the crust.
I must be patient that you will return
when the wind whitens the tender
underbelly of the March grass
thick as pillows under the oaks.
At Ystrad Fflûr 1
No way of flowers at this late season.
Only a river blossoming on stone
and the mountain ash in fruit.
All rivers are young in these wooded hills
where the abbey watches and the young Teifi
counts her rosary on stones.
I cross by a simple bridge constructed
of three slim trees. Two lie across. The third
is a broken balustrade.
The sun is warm after rain on the red
pelt of the slope, fragmentary through trees
like torches in the dark.
They have been here before me and have seen
the sun's lunulae in the profound
quietness of water.
The Teifi is in full flood and rich
with metals: a torc in a brown pool
gleaming for centuries.
I am spellbound in a place of spells. Cloud
changes gold to stone as their circled bones
dissolve in risen corn.
The river races for the south too full
of summer rain for safety, spilt water
whitening low-lying fields.
From oak and birchwoods through the turning trees
where leaf and hour and century fall
seasonally, desire runs
Like sparks in stubble through the memory
of the place, and a yellow mustard field
is a sheet of flame in the heart.
Excerpted from Collected Poems by Gillian Clarke. Copyright © 1997 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.
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Table of Contents
from The Sundial,
Snow on the Mountain,
Death of a Young Woman,
Dyddgu Replies to Dafydd,
At Ystrad Fflûr,
Harvest at Mynachlog,
St Thomas's Day,
from Letter from a Far Country,
Return to Login,
Miracle on St David's Day,
Jac Codi Baw,
Letter from a Far Country,
Kingfishers at Condat,
Seamstress at St Léon,
Heron at Port Talbot,
Suicide on Pentwyn Bridge,
Death of a Cat,
Sheila na Gig at Kilpeck,
Shadows in Llanbadarn,
from Selected Poems,
Syphoning the Spring,
A Dream of Horses,
Climbing Cader Idris,
Castell y Bere,
from Letting in the Rumour,
At One Thousand Feet,
Listening for Trains,
Cold Knap Lake,
Fires on Llyn,
Talking of Burnings in Walter Savage Landor's Smithy,
Overheard in County Sligo,
Hare in July,
The Rothko Room,
Tory Party Conference, Bournemouth, 1986,
Times like These,
Magpie in Snow,
from The King of Britain's Daughter,
Hölderlin in Tubingen,
Swimming with Seals,
Olwen Takes Her First Steps on the Word Processor in Time of War,
Eclipse of the Moon,
Walking on Water,
The West Window of York Minster,
St Winefride's Well,
The King of Britain's Daughter,
Index of titles,
Index of first lines,