Wind in the poplars and a broken branch,
a dead arm in the bright trees. Five poplars
tremble gradually to gold. The stone face
of the lion darkens in a sharp shower,
his dreadlocks of lobelia grown long,
tangled, more brown now than blue eyed.
My friend dead and the graveyard at Orcop,
her short ride to the hawthorn hedge, lighter
than hare bones on men’s shoulders, our faces
stony, rain, weeping in the air. The grave
deep as a well takes the earth’s thud, the slow
fall of flowers.
Over the page the pen
runs faster than wind’s white steps over grass.
For a while health feels like pain. Then panic
running the fields, the grass, the racing leaves
ahead of light, holding that robin’s eye
in the laurel, hydrangea’s faded green.
I must write like the wind, year after year
passing my death day, winning ground.
‘The persistent torrent from the gurgoyle’s jaws directed all its vengeance into the grave. The rich tawny mould was stirred into motion, and boiled like chocolate. The water accumulated and washed deeper down, and the roar of the pool thus formed spread into the night as the head and chief among other noises of the kind created by the deluging rain. ‘
Short commentary to follow, using ART idea taken from previous ‘Demeter’ blog.
Gillian Clarke’s autumnal exploration of the bleak territory of death has a strongly Hardyesque aspect, with the overwhelming sense of grim inevitability and despair. Yet the end of the poem offers a change too: an acceptance of mortality which also renews commitment to oneself and to one’s dreams, which in Clarke’s world signifies writing. And it is writing that has the capacity to ward off the encroaching approach of death for it may remain when ‘one’ has literally gone. Just as the poem itself testifies to our capacity for feeling.
Each time I read this poem two phrases stand out.
The first involves the ‘broken branch, a dead arm in the bright trees.‘ Autumn is the season of decay. The decay is compounded by the situation the speaker finds herself in. She is attending her friend’s funeral and the sadness she feels at such a loss is reflected in the choice of language as well as perspective. The dismal reality of her friend’s death saturates the landscape. There is also something rather surreal about reading a branch as a ‘dead arm’.It suggests both disembodiment and a grotesque form of farewell perhaps?
We are aware that the poet’s inner world is being reflected on the world outside, and may offer(ironically) a form of consolation as the world is acknowledging the departure of a human being and their relation to others.It may be a bleak world but perhaps it is not indifferent.
It is also possible that the ‘dead arm’ symbolises the now departed tenderness from the poet’s life. Arms often represent care and connection, and if ‘dead’ then how can they reach out to us again? Signs may reveal or conceal far more than we consciously realise. Raw emotion renders us unguarded and ‘surreal’ . Little wonder that the worlds and words we move in testify to this experience.
Later in the poem, the coffin of the poet’s friend is described as being ‘lighter than hare’s bones.’ This resonates as it simply communicates the abject bodily state of her dead friend through terminal illness. In terms of literal weight, there is nothing to carry. However the weight of mourning is very different.
It is singular that the poet picks a ‘hare‘ in order to communicate the suffering body of her friend. Why a hare?
Surely because the hare also has connotations of fragility and speed. It works as a symbol of liberation and freedom as well as underlining the cruel corporeal impact of severe illness. The cliche that death can release us from suffering is delicately revised in this poem. This revision makes Clarke’s grief her own and gives her friend’s death a very intimate singularity.
The Woman in Black
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