IN WHAT is probably the best poem in Jane Clarke’s debut collection, The River, published by Bloodaxe, the narrator asks “Who owns the field?//Is it the one who is named in the deeds/whose hands never touched the clay/or is it the one who gathers the sheaves//takes a scythe to the thistles, plants the beech?"
The answer of course is that, under current legislation, the useless guy with the belly, the bank account, and his name on the deeds always triumphs. And it usually requires pretty drastic action - typically locking a few members of the ruling class in a basement and never letting them out again - to significantly adjust such realities.
This poem leaps out because its worldview is, whether the author realises it or not, overtly Marxist. Such direct questioning of things as they are is not something generally expected to find in a collection of well-made lyric poems with a pastoral tendency; the sort of poetry which long deceased arts administrators, whom no one has yet got around to cremating, typically rush to embrace. Of course, said literary quangocrats, as Dave Lordan likes to call them, will mostly skip over Clarke’s awkward question about the ownership of the field, and make for what they would consider her prettier poems.
Clarke’s work mostly calls to mind early Seamus Heaney; the Heaney of Death of a Naturalist (1966 ), before the Northern political explosions got to work on his imagination. I am an obsessive editor of poems; it is my job. In most poems I read I spot a word or two said poem could have lived without. Not so here. Clarke’s poetry is word perfect. Like Heaney, she is a deceptively tough poet.
‘Among the Cows’ has a rough beauty: “When her mother died/her father wore his grief the way//he wore his Sunday suit/as if it belonged to someone else.//She would listen to the calves/calling for days when weaned,//until their voices, exhausted,/faded like mist from the fields.”
The worst thing for Jane Clarke would be if the tag ‘pastoral poet’ stuck. She is so much more than a poet prettifying nature for those whose one remaining aspiration in life is to have cream tea with Marian Finucane. Like Heaney, and in a slightly different way Ted Hughes, Clarke writes about nature from the inside.
There are no tourist hill-walking poems here. Indeed, even when she is weaving “through a New York rush” her mind drifts to the ‘Cows at Dugart’: “The way in the evening/they take to the road,/up the hill by the post office/heading for home.”
In ‘The Globe’ she remembers how she and her classmates at school used to “vie for turns to search/for Rhodesia, Ceylon, Abyssinia, Siam”. The fact that she chose four countries which now trade under other names shows she is a poet aware that change is the only certainty - and however one may try and resist it - it is coming to get you.