BOOK REVIEW ZOOLOGY BY GILLIAN CLARKE by G.Culshaw
Gillian Clarke’s latest collection called Zoology, is in six parts and over eighty poems strong. From a poet, who is also over eighty, her range of subject take us through the experiences one may expect from a rich intaker of life.
The first part of the collection is home life, childhood memories, her love for her father. The first poem starts off with a musical tone in The Presence. With a full rhyme and at times a partial rhyme in the examples from the poem below.
a small wind winds through rush and sedge
movement, heartbeat halts at the edge
that such a living thing once seen
in that sunlit space will never be gone,
There’s consonance and assonance in the poet’s work that show the poet has an ear that works with the pen.
In the second poem, Ghosts, the poet moves through the people who have wounded her heart the most. As a poet we have experiences our whole lives that dig trenches deep into our skin. Usually human experience, and more than most from parents, grandparents, and children. A part of the healinglll is to bring out poems for these wounds, a mental dressing to get us through life. The poet shows her hurt in the following lines
and everyone ever here is here again, now:
my mother, her luminous beauty marrred
by hands that plunged in too much earth,
your father, his miner’s hands gnarled as the oak
we planted in his name; its leaves are falling gold
through the gap in the hedge-bank where something
spindles the long lean of its limbs, there,
my Ga whose hands spun lace from Pembrokeshire tides;
my aunt who gave me poetry, word and world;
my father who conjured Welsh, a fox cub, a rabbit
from his sleeve, and lifted me onto the sill that night
in the war,
You sense at night the poet’s last thoughts before the blankness of sleep are with these figures.
In this first section the poet brings her father in and you sense their father-daughter bond. In four poems you have the start of each one with the following stanzas. There’s a connection of something deeper than one life, but also the poet knows the chain of their love being unlinked. A longing many lives lived.
from where he stands inside the cave,
my invisible father, the camera’s eye
sees a radiant gash in rock
He taught me to swim, his palm a saucer.
When I wasn’t looking he let me go
to the slippery hands of the sea,
The year he didn’t die
he left on a banana boat
to convalesce at sea
When long ago my father cast his spell
with wires and microphones, he told me
he could send sound on waves the speed of light
The collection moves to a new direction with poems from the poet’s time at a Zoology Museum. It’s a refreshing surprise from the heavy start and we delight in her phrases
a scrabble of earth
Earth’s book of stone
as he ducked under her lintel
the heart’s stopped clock
The poems are an insight few have a privilege to witness. The dead-weight of a million years behind a glass case.
In part three the poet gives us five poems. The poet gives us a history lesson running through the five poems. A history of human sacrifice and endeavour to survive.
The Mountain starts off with
This place has secrets,
second poem, Mine
his hand on rock slimed by centuries of rain,
where the falling stone of his cry
is echoing still
third poem, River
Weather, miner, shepherd, farmer made this place,
fourth poem, Barracks
The moan of wind in these stones
is the lonely monotone
All these lines could be put together to make one poem. You are there amongst the rocks, the weather, the environment, the seasons. The poet takes us right in and lets us see a world now pushed to the sidelines of history.
In the fourth part of the collection the poet shows her awareness of time in the seasons. The poet is a detective, a collector, a watchwoman, a hoarder of nature. The poems give us new words
demarcation, zygote, vulva, riptide, wethers,
to phrases that could turn to everyday usage
October, and the mountain is a river,
in the womb where life begins
like a match struck in the dark
Breath of the white dragon,
a first flake of snow.
thirsting for a lamb’s eye
the little month,
between the end and the beginning
Earth’s skin pricks with growth.
New wool, like a veil of snow,
spreads over naked skin,
Her story is a barcode.
There’s an understanding in the ewe poems that make you think the poet is a farmer, shepherd, vet, God.
In the fifth part of the collection the poet fills out her poems after some of the shorter poems in previous pages. Maybe there’s an urgency to get down what the poet wants to say. Trees become a central point. After the geology and sheep knowledge earlier in the book we now have trees to think about.
The poet wants us to open up another part of natural instinct. We have gone through the loss of love, the life of a sheep, the geology of time, and dinosaurs. Now we have to think about something that is in our everyday lives, trees.
In the poem, How to take a tree apart, we have a tree being taken down bit by bit. The poet gently takes us through this though you can sense the poet’s anguish.
The old chestnut is dead.
its shadow scoured from the house-wall.
Pity the fallen. Trailer them away.
email the children.
Throughout this section tree poems sprout up with phrases and lines that creates currents in our minds to find a wood.
Quercus, Derwen, sacred Druid tree,
rings of history scribed in its heartwood,
farms folded deeper into rings
of a wild laburnum,
The trees are closing down
in leaf-dropping silence,
Thirty years in this house and never before
such a howl of rage in the trees,
Remembering wind in the white oaks
Out in the garden and the singing woods,
The collection finishes with eleven poems in elegies. The poems are callings, like a bird searching for a partner. But here the poet isn’t after a response to a song more a song in reverse where the elegies sing out of the poet.
In The Blackbird we have the last lines
like a bird picking over
the September lawn
I gather their leaves.
This is what silence is.
or the start The Brown Hare
Never more than a shadow
a silvering wind crossing a field
two ears alert in a gap
at the passing train grief lifts from
the land on the wings of crows
She uses three concrete images : a passing train, the land, the wings of crows set against the word grief. The movement of the train has shifted something: ‘grief lifts’ carried on the wings of crows – a beautiful image, elegiac, controlled. The reference to the land means this is not merely a personal grief – it is deep rooted in Wales, in family who are now ‘presences’, a father who anchored her, leaders whose values are now lost.
the collection ends with the last stanza
maybe good men will again come to power
truth speak, and words have meaning again.
a few words put in place that all of us need in the modern world.
This is a fantastic collection full of wisdom and Hiraeth. The poet knows the beginning and ending of life and we’re taken along via six different parts. This gives us time to reflect and breath.