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All the way home, Jane Clarke

Smith/Doorstop, 2019      £6.00

Bringing war home

The signature poem in Jane Clarke’s subtly moving pamphlet for me is ‘The Arch’. It is a structure no longer part of a recognizable whole, but still standing — for now:

One day it will stop trying to hold
what can no longer be held.

The arch is a symbol for the destruction wrecked by the First World War, and all it touches, specifically in this case the Auerbach family. Working to a series of photographs — oddly contemporary somehow — the poet goes on to illustrate that what war touches is everything. Home is in the battlefield and vice versa. In ‘After we are gone’, the soldier considers the homeliness brought to the trench:

They’ll never know one of the lads
keeps celandine and meadowsweet

in a whiskey glass by his pallet,
another passes the time at the parapet

naming the flowers in his mother’s garden;
foxgloves, peonies, lupin, heart’s ease.

The sister in England, milking a cow, warms hands that have been ‘so empty and so cold’, bringing quietly to our notice all the missing young men.

Small, domestic acts signify endeavour beyond their unassuming frame. In ‘The Axe’ a woman’s newly won prowess with the implement is shown not in her strength (she had that already) ‘but in the arc of her swing’.

Conversely, huge tasks are achieved through invoking comforting, day-to-day experiences. In ‘Bouchavesnes’, the soldier,  preparing ‘another twenty graves’, thinks of his grandfather’s advice on lifting potatoes: ‘dig gently / or you’ll bruise the tubers that huddle [ ... ] under the ground’. The memory of the mundane is substituted for the present horror, rendering the latter knowable, pitiable.

Hard goes to soft, soft to hard in this collection. Plants are endowed with tenderness. In ‘Ling’ we learn that ‘only heather, out of kindness’ offers to cover bare mountain slopes.

It is her ability to render the immense intimate, the intimate immense, that is the signal achievement of this quietly passionate work. In this way, Clarke proves that war, whenever it happens, is part of the family. It comes ‘All the way home’.

This is its real story. Lest we forget. Terrific.

Rebecca Bilkau

 

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