Under the ocean where water falls
over the decks and tilted walls
where the sea come knocking at the great ship's door,
You scan the stream, silver-eyed as a heron
searching the surface for what might betray
a halt in the flow, pentameter's delay,
a master's faded words, his lexicon.
Snowlight and sunlight, the lake glacial.
Too bright to open my eyes
in the dazzle and doze
of a distant January afternoon.
28 June 1960
Perhaps a woman hanging out the wash
paused, hearing something, a sudden hush,
An old ewe that somehow till this year
had given the ram the slip. We thought her barren.
Good Friday, and the Irish peace deal close,
and tonight she's serious, restless and hoofing the straw.
We put off the quiet supper and bottle of wine
we'd planned, to celebrate if the news is good.
Her waters broke an hour ago and she's sipped
her own lost salty ocean from the ground.
While they slog it out in Belfast, eight decades
since Easter 1916, exhausted, tamed by pain,
she licks my fingers with a burning tongue,
lies down again. Two hooves and a muzzle.
But the lamb won't come. You phone for help
and step into the lane to watch for car lights.
This is when the whitecoats come to the women,
well meaning, knowing best, with their needles and forceps.
So I ease my fingers in, take the slippery head
in my right hand, two hooves in my left.
We strain together, harder than we dared.
I feel a creak in the limbs and pull till he comes
in a syrupy flood. She drinks him, famished, and you find us
peaceful, at a cradling that might have been a death.
Then the second lamb slips through her opened door,
the stone rolled away.
I am sitting in the wrong 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.
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.
We once watched a crowd
pull a drowned child from the lake.
Blue lipped and dressed in water's long green silk
she lay for dead.
Then kneeling on the earth,
a heroine, her red head bowed,
her wartime cotton frock soaked,
my mother gave a stranger's child her breath.
The crowd stood silent,
drawn by the dread of it.
The child breathed, bleating
and rosy in my mother's hands.
My father took her home to a poor house
and watched her thrashed for almost drowning.
Was I there?
Or is that troubled surface something else
shadowy under the dipped fingers of willows
where satiny mud blooms in cloudiness
after the treading, heavy webs of swans
as their wings beat and whistle on the air?
All lost things lie under closing water
in that lake with the poor man's daughter.
For the green turtle with her pulsing burden,
in search of the breeding ground.
For her eggs laid in their nest of sickness.
For the cormorant in his funeral silk,
the veil of iridescence on the sand,
the shadow on the sea.
For the ocean's lap with its mortal stain.
For Ahmed at the closed border.
For the soldier with his uniform of fire.
For the gunsmith and the armourer,
the boy fusilier who joined for the company,
the farmer's sons, in it for the music.
For the hook-beaked turtles,
the dugong and the dolphin,
the whale struck dumb by the missile's thunder.
For the tern, the gull and the restless wader,
the long migrations and the slow dying,
the veiled sun and the stink of anger.
For the burnt earth and the sun put out,
the scalded ocean and the blazing well.
For vengeance, and the ashes of language.
Wales spelt Vales
on the brown envelope
from Vites to Llanidloes.
Inside a bundle of pages,
little illuminated manuscripts
of gilded Easter eggs,
scenes from a European spring
we'd all know anywhere,
an afternoon's work from the class in Vites.
Dear Ben', says one,
You are my friend. Write me. Misha.'
Quietly, heads bent over the pages,
the children write the first draft of a poem.
Outside April is all indecision,
daffodils over, lawns blurred with speedwell,
the cherries torn by a sharp rain.
In the photograph, yesterday's Misha is smiling.
A class group grinning, pulling faces.
They wave, thumbs up to the future.
Behind them, in the rendered wall of the school,
are the bullet holes.
Three years ago to the hour, the day she was born,
that unmistakable brim and tug of the tide
I'd thought was over. I drove
the twenty miles of summer lanes,
my daughter cursing Sunday cars,
and the lazy swish of a dairy herd
rocking so slowly home.
Something in the event,
late summer heat overspilling into harvest,
apples reddening on heavy trees,
the lanes sweet with brambles
and our fingers purple,
then the child coming easy,
too soon, in the wrong place,
things seasonal and out of season
towed home a harvest moon.
My daughter's daughter
a day old under an umbrella on the beach,
Latecomer at summer's festival,
and I'm hooked again, life sentenced.
Even the sea could not draw me from her.
This year I bake her a cake like our house,
and old trees blossom
with balloons and streamers.
We celebrate her with a cup
of cold blue ocean,
candles at twilight, and three drops of,
probably, last blood.
I think of her sometimes when I lie in bed,
falling asleep in the room I have made in the roof-space
over the old dark parlwr where she died
alone in winter, ill and penniless.
Lighting the lamps, November afternoons,
a reading book, whisky gold in my glass.
At my typewriter tapping under stars
at my new roof window, radio tunes
and dog for company. Or parking the car
where through the mud she called her single cow
up from the field, under the sycamore.
Or looking at the hills she looked at too.
I find her broken crocks, digging her garden.
What else do we share, but being women?
All you need to know about this poem is that it is a true story. It happened in the '70s, and it took me years to find a way to write the poem.
‘They flash upon that inward eye
which is the bliss of solitude'
(from ‘The Daffodils' by William Wordsworth)
An afternoon yellow and open-mouthed
with daffodils. The sun treads the path
among cedars and enormous oaks.
It might be a country house, guests strolling,
the rumps of gardeners between nursery shrubs.
I am reading poetry to the insane.
An old woman, interrupting, offers
as many buckets of coal as I need.
A beautiful chestnut-haired boy listens
entirely absorbed. A schizophrenic
on a good day, they tell me later.
In a cage of first March sun a woman
sits not listening, not feeling.
In her neat clothes the woman is absent.
A big, mild man is tenderly led
to his chair. He has never spoken.
His labourer's hands on his knees, he rocks
gently to the rhythms of the poems.
I read to their presences, absences,
to the big, dumb labouring man as he rocks.
He is suddenly standing, silently,
huge and mild, but I feel afraid. Like slow
movement of spring water or the first bird
of the year in the breaking darkness,
the labourer's voice recites ‘The Daffodils'.
The nurses are frozen, alert; the patients
seem to listen. He is hoarse but word-perfect.
Outside the daffodils are still as wax,
a thousand, ten thousand, their syllables
unspoken, their creams and yellows still.
Forty years ago, in a Valleys school,
the class recited poetry by rote.
Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech and that once he had something to say.
When he's done, before the applause, we observe
the flowers' silence. A thrush sings
and the daffodils are flame.
My box is made of golden oak,
my lover's gift to me.
He fitted hinges and a lock
of brass and a bright key.
He made it out of winter nights,
sanded and oiled and planed,
engraved inside the heavy lid
in brass, a golden tree.
In my box are twelve black books
where I have written down
how we have sanded, oiled and planed,
planted a garden, built a wall,
seen jays and goldcrests, rare red kites,
found the wild heartsease, drilled a well,
harvested apples and words and days
and planted a golden tree.
On an open shelf I keep my box.
Its key is in the lock.
I leave it there for you to read,
or them when we are dead,
how everything is slowly made,
how slowly things made me,
a tree, a lover, words, a box,
books and a golden tree.
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.
Cradled through England between flooded fields
rocking, rocking the rails, my headphones on,
the black box of my Walkman on the table.
Hot tea trembles in its plastic cup.
I'm thinking of you waking in our bed
thinking of me on the train.
The radio speaks in the suburbs, in commuter towns,
in cars unloading children at school gates,
is silenced in dark parkways down the line
before locks click and footprints track the frost
and trains slide out of stations in the dawn
dreaming their way towards the blazing bone-ship.
The Vodaphone you are calling
may have been switched off.
Please call later. And calling later,
calling later their phones ring in the rubble
and in the rubble of suburban kitchens
the wolves howl into silent telephones.
I phone. No answer. Where are you now?
The train moves homewards through the morning.
Tonight I'll be home safe, but talk to me, please.
Pick up the phone. Today I'm tolerant
of mobiles. Let them say it. I'll say it too.
Darling, I'm on the train.
New blood in the killing-ground,
I touch the raw wire
feet from the edge.
Her house is air. She comes downstairs
on a turn of wind.
This is her table.
She is arrow.
At two miles a minute
the pigeon bursts like a city.
While we turned our backs
she wasted nothing
but a rose-ringed foot
a far blue line where a ship
diminishes and the evening sun
where we glimpse stars and shoals
and shadowy water-gardens
of what's beyond us.
When the seal rises
she rests her chin on the sea
as we do, and tames us with her gaze.
On shore the elderly
bask beside their cars
at the edge of what they've lost,
and shade their eyes
and lift binoculars.
apt to the sea's grace
to watch us underwater from her place,
you with your mask and fins,
strolling the shallow gardens of the sea,
me, finding depth
with a child's flounder of limbs,
hauling downwards on our chains of breath.
For a moment the old
looking out to sea,
all earth's weight beneath their folding chairs,
see only flawless blue to the horizon,
while we in seconds of caught air,
swim down against buoyancy,
rolling in amnion
like her September calf.
Summer, and the long grass is a snare drum.
The air hums with jets.
Down at the end of the meadow,
far from the radio's terrible news,
we cut the hay. All afternoon
its wave breaks before the tractor blade.
Over the hedge our neighbour travels his field
in a cloud of lime, drifting our land
with a chance gift of sweetness.
The child come running through the killed flowers,
his hands a nest of quivering mouse,
its black eyes two sparks burning.
We know it will die and ought to finish it off.
It curls in agony big as itself
and the star goes out in its eye.
Summer in Europe, the fields hurt,
and the children kneel in long grass,
staring at what we have crushed.
Before day's done the field lies bleeding,
the dusk garden inhabited by the saved, voles,
frogs, a nest of mice. The wrong that woke
from a rumour of pain won't heal,
and we can't face the newspapers.
All night I dream the children dance in grass
their bones brittle as mouse ribs, the air
stammering with gunfire, my neighbour turned
stranger, wounding my land with stones.
Gillian Clarke (born 8 June 1937) is a Welsh poet, playwright, editor, broadcaster, lecturer and translator from Wales. Gillian Clarke was born on 8 June 1937 in Cardiff, and was brought up in Cardiff and Penarth, though for part of the Second World War she was in Pembrokeshire. She lived in Barry for a few years at a house called "Flatholme" on The Parade. Although her parents were Welsh speakers, she was brought up speaking only English and learnt to speak Welsh as an adult - partly as a form of rebellion. She graduated in English from Cardiff University. Afterwards she spent a year working for the BBC in London. She then returned to Cardiff, where she married and had a daughter, Catrin, about whom she has written a poem of the same name, and two sons. She worked as an English teacher, first at the Reardon-Smith Nautical College and later at Newport College of Art. In the mid-1980s she moved to rural Ceredigion, west Wales with her second husband, after which time she spent some years as a creative writing tutor at the University of Glamorgan. In 1990 she was a co-founder of Ty Newydd, a writers' centre in North Wales. Her poetry is studied by GCSE and A Level students throughout Britain. She has given poetry readings and lectures in Europe and the United States, and her work has been translated into ten languages. A considerable number of her poems are used in the GCSE AQA Anthology. Clarke has published numerous collections of poetry for adults and children (see below), as well as dramatic commissions and numerous articles in a wide range of publications. She is a former editor of The Anglo-Welsh Review (1975–84) and the current president of Tŷ Newydd. Several of her books have received the Poetry Book Society Recommendation. In 1999 Gillian Clarke received the Glyndŵr Award for an "Outstanding Contribution to the Arts in Wales" during the Machynlleth Festival, and she was on the judging panel for the 2008 Manchester Poetry Prize. Clarke reads her poetry for teenagers who are taking their English GCSE school exams. She is part of the GCSE Poetry Live team that also includes John Agard, Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, Imtiaz Dharker, Moniza Alvi, Grace Nichols, Daljit Nagra and Choman Hardi. In December 2013 Clarke was the guest for BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs.)
Under the ocean where water falls
over the decks and tilted walls
where the sea come knocking at the great ship's door,
the band still plays
to the drum of the waves,
to the drum of the waves.
Down in the indigo depths of the sea
the white shark waltzes gracefully
down the water stairways, across the ballroom floor
where the cold shoals flow
and ghost dancers go,
ghost dancers go.
Their dresses are frayed, their shoes are lost.
their jewels and beads and bones are tossed
into the sand, all turned to stone,
as they sing in the sea
Currents comb their long loose hair,
dancers sway forever where
the bright fish nibble their glittering bones,
till they fall asleep
in the shivering deep,
in the shivering deep.