Neighbours – Gillian Clarke

2017-09-23For readers nowadays to be able to understand this poem takes a reader who is into their world history. For the average reader in a school classroom, assuming they have not looked at Russian or Ukrainian history, such a poem may wash over them.

So, I urge you all now to research the following information. On 26th April, 1986, there was a nuclear disaster in a place called Chernobyl. It is responsible for 31 direct deaths and numerous others because of the nuclear fall out from the explosion there. Find out about it and do some digging on how it happened, why it happened and then look at what the UK was going through at the time, with the likes of the CND movement in this country, fighting something called Trident. No, that is not your work experience but a much more powerful thing indeed.

Go on, do some reading now!

So, you know about Chernobyl in some small way now, so when we come to read this poem, we begin to see how knowledge can help us to understand good, challenging poetry.

Clarke notes that the “Spring was late” in that year, beginning on a sombre tone, something to make the reader think about as they read. Upon a first reading, the reader is thinking okay, what is this about? The real meaning is hidden by the poet as she continues into line 2. She states how people studied weather charts and how “birds were late to pair” and mate with each other, leading the reader to think what has caused this? With the negative start, this makes the reader think something is coming that is bad. It sets that kind of tone as a poem.

The mention of Finland and how the bird population fails in its usual activity makes the reader think that something catastrophic happened in that “spring” but so far, there is no set thing, event or place to link these words to. In essence, the confusion continues for the reader, as they continue on through the poem.

The reference to birds “failing over fjords” is an interesting one, not only for the alliterative feel to it, but one normally associates Finland and the fjords as one of the most clean and healthy places on the planet, so for something to damage that sense of cleanliness must mean a global problem of some kind. But so far, there are only hints as to what. Now how good is your Geography? How well do you know where Finland is and where Russian and the Ukraine are? Is your knowledge up to date? If so, then this is a good thing, because when you realise just how close they are, you have a better chance to catch the sentiment and meaning of this poem as it progresses.

Those birds over the fjords breathe in the air and for each one there is a “sip of gall” because they are breathing in polluted air from somewhere. But then, with reference to “children” and milk being “spilt,” we begin to see that the effects of this event are now having a dangerous reaction in the lives of others, not just in what we know to be Chernobyl, but those nations who live close by. In a sense, there is a sense of globalism here, the belief that when there is a catastrophic event, it impacts people from all over the world, if you like, our neighbours who we live near. Neighbouring countries after Chernobyl suffered immensely with Cancer issues from the nuclear explosion. They still to this day struggle and the place cannot be lived in for some considerable time.

The first half of the poem is about that spring. The second half begins with “this Spring” and says something of what life is like now, thirty one years later. For us, life is tainted by this event. “Now we are all neighbours,” we find that each of us are related to each other because we share the same air, polluted air, air that damages us as we breathe it in. And so, we wait for the time when clean air can be once again taken into our lungs, a time when ideas of openness [Glasnost] can be a good thing.

This poem then is a metaphor for the dangers of nuclear fusion and the nuclear arms race. Was Clarke writing from the point of view of a CND member? Do some more research on her and see if she ever has been linked to the movement. If she has, then that is the driving force. If not, then she could just be making the connection between how we are neighbours and how we need to learn from such an event as Chernobyl. This then, is one very sombre but very effective poem.





One of the things I have loved in over twenty years of teaching is teaching poetry from other cultures because English students can fall into that tricky little trap of reading a poem from a writer from another culture and not understanding what is being shared at all. You see, they, like everyone, read any poem based on their background and experience.

Let us say for example, that a typically English student, living in the heart of the English countryside, reads this poem. He or she may not have any understanding of what it is like to live in the Caribbean, unless they see the news recently and all the mention of hurricanes and destruction. What they fail to see or understand is the harshness of normal life for some on islands in the middle of the Atlantic or Pacific. How can they understand what it is like to live there or to scavenge for work there when there isn’t any work at all and then try to understand the poem in front of them?

It is the teacher’s role to cross the boundaries of social and historical background when teaching these poems, just as much as it is for them teaching an Armitage poem and teaching their students about life as Simon Armitage sees it based on his life experience. If they are not doing that, then they are failing their students, in my humble, ageing opinion.

So, when we get to this Grace Nichols poem from her block of writing, we see someone writing about the islands she has lived on in the past. Married to John Agard will no doubt be a fun experience, but their shared love of English and of poetry allows them to write honestly, sometimes harshly and always beautifully.

Let me ask you a question. How much would you pay for the sun?

What does that mean? Can it have more than one meaning? I think this title has more than one meaning in it. After all, when she starts writing, she is doing so using Free Verse, using zero punctuation, making the reader pause at the end of each line, where punctuation should be. Because there is none there, you are supposed to pause. Thus, “These islands” becomes a statement in a way. “These islands” are home; beautiful in every way. But then she goes on to say they are not “picture postcards” that someone has created. No picture can fully bring about the fuller meaning of life on “these islands” and the reader should realise this is what she means from the beginning. She says “these islands real,” missing a word out of what we would call Standard English, using a ‘Creole’ of the English language to communicate. [If you are not sure on Creole, Google it and check please].

There is a reality for her in these islands because they are “more real than flesh and blood.” Now, we see the word “past” and we have to ask, because of the Creole style, whether or not she is saying the word in place of the word “except.” In other words, she is saying, “more real than flesh and blood except “these islands split bone.” Suddenly, there is a sense of harshness about life on these islands, as idyllic as they are. For mere British men and women, this would be a holiday destination, but to the islanders themselves, life here is nasty, brutish and for some, short. The phrase “split bone” is an interesting one, which makes the reader see that life is so tough that one has to be extra strong to survive there. But she is not being critical. She loves those islands. She loves what they stand for and what the culture is that exists there. To her, she is saying that there is no better place; there is no place like home.

In verse two, we see the poet extend those thoughts into a figure that is so central to her life, her mother. We sense closeness as we read how her “mother’s breasts like sleeping volcanoes” would be a source of rest for her when she was a youngster. By this, she is referring to those times when as a youngster, we go to mother for comfort and solace. We are in trouble, or in pain and we go to our mother for rest and peace, usually involving a huge cuddle, if we have that kind of relationship. There is then a reference to how those breasts know about the “Cancer tricking her below” and how the effect of such pain changes her mother and her mother’s outlook on life. The element of trickery is interesting too, for any kind of debilitating illness exists to wear you down until you are unable to fight any more. So, this is the poet looking back on the life [and demise] of her mother and thinking of her again. Read some of her other poems where she mentions mother and you will see her love for her shining from the poem.

But then she mentions her father and how his “tears” have been constantly whipped and turned into “salty hurricanes” showing us an element of real life on these islands. It reminds me of the poem Island Man in a way, but although the man in that poem is in London and dreaming of the Caribbean, this lady is reminiscing on the islands she lives or has lived on and is stating that these places are entrenched in her psyche. Words like “tears” and “salty hurricanes” evoke a certain image in the mind, one of pain and turmoil. This is a poor lifestyle, for certain, but it is a happy one too, for this woman inserts a glorious image at the end, as if to make her final point. She mentions “water mirroring palm” which makes me think of palm trees and the shadows they make on the sand, how the sea can make shapes that can mirror almost anything and how, after all this time away, she can see the true beauty of the place once again. It also makes one think of how nature mirrors our existence at times.

The last three lines are spectacular in their description because then we see the real meaning in her poem. This is almost polemic in its stance, for she is saying, to anyone who will read and listen, that “poverty is the price we pay for the sun.” We have sun here more or less all the time, she is saying, but the price we pay is that we remain poor. The ones with the money are outsiders. Now, the last two words, for me, can lead to confusion. At first, I was unsure how to take them. The words “run come” are oxymoronic yes, but what do they mean? The answer is that the reader is meant to consider that because of the way nature is portrayed as being brutal and that the islanders are seen as part of the land, the best thing to do is run away. There is a “run coming” may be a better way to understand the ending because she, along with her husband, did just that and emigrated from Guyana in the West Indies to a life away from their home. It is the story of so many West Indian people, who left for work and never came back. They sit in their relative luxury of home in which ever country they reside in now and look back to the motherland, their home, their sunshine paradise.

In this sense, this is a poem looking at the way nature is merged with humanity, how the islands are much more than mere images on a postcard or even, in the mind of those who are from there but have not seen home for some time. Because of that, this sits within what used to be called the ‘Poetry from Other Cultures’ section of anthologies, waiting to be read so that people from all over the world can see the reality of life for Caribbean islanders.

Cold Knap Lake – Gillian Clarke

Gillian Clarke poems tend to be a certain style, like most of us when we write, sharing a certain theme, whether that theme be beauty, nature, love, simplicity or any such theme. This one is no different and reminds this reader of a film starring Paul Newman, called Cold Hand Luke. Whether she intends this is not in question for that is only my memory playing tricks on me.

It is the telling of a memory of an event in the life of the person speaking, whether that is the poet’s memory, or her desire to write as if she was someone else for the purposes of this poem [for the latter, you need to remember that we poets tend to see something or read something and assume the person involved when writing].

She writes about how she is in a crowd of people, we assume to be young, who are observing the pulling from the water of a female body, who has the usual green silt trailing from her body because she has been in the water for some time before being found and rescued. We are not told how long at the beginning that she has been there but the words “Blue lipped” share an interesting description, which makes us see the picture of the oxygen starved body, her lips showing the early signs of decay and being under water. It is quite a grim description to set the scene for the reader so they sense that what is to follow will be grim also, or even worse. The reader is not told that she is alive or dead until the second verse when the “heroine” of the poem comes to the young girl’s aid and gives her mouth to mouth treatment in order to resuscitate her back to health. The “heroine” has her “red hair bowed” in this act of assistance and love. We call it the kiss of life in some parts of the world and so, here is this heroine trying to share what in other circumstances would be an act of love.

The word “wartime” sets this for us as being between the years of the second world war [1939-1945] so we are seeing a memory from some time ago, from the mind of a writer who I believe, is being autobiographical. We see that it is her “mother “giving “a stranger’s child her breath” and so we see an adult desperately trying to save a child who has ended up in the water. As she does this, “the crowd” of people stand in silence “drawn by the dread of it” and wondering with grim satisfaction, what will happen next.

Half way through the telling of this tale of woe, the third verse begins and we see the child spring from near death to life. But what happens next to the child is the most shocking thing of all in today’s liberal way of thinking and bringing up children. The child breathes in the air and is then thrashed [beaten] for getting into trouble when she gets home. She is punished for making others worry about her. Instead of a warm hug and a “how are you?” all she gets is a beating. We react negatively nowadays but back in these times, that would have been commonplace here in the UK, the almost expected thing from a parent. I remember times in the 60s when I got into trouble, apologised to the person, went home and got a beating for it, even though I had apologised. Physical violence was a much more accepted form of treatment back then and in some cases, was ignored. We live today in a much more humane world.

Then, in line 15, the poet asks if she was there at the time; in one sense, this is strange but it can be understood. Is it a memory or has she made some of it up over the years? That kind of thing tends to happen as you get older. Memories become muddled with time and usage. She is questioning the reality of it after so many years so this is normal for such an experience. It is a memory of a traumatic episode. But is she asking something else here as well? Was I there” could mean that she is referring to herself as the young girl in the lake, almost like allegory or parable in the telling of this harrowing story. If she means this then it means she is the girl and the mother is a “stranger” to her, suggesting displacement within the family setup. If so, and it is a small ‘if’ then the penultimate verse is one that is reflecting on the event in such a way as to ask, “is that troubled surface something else?” She reflects how “satiny mud blooms in cloudiness” and therefore, is asking if she has the memory right, especially since the brain does some strange things at the point of danger.

Either way, whether she is being autobiographical or not, what we have in the last two lines is a sense of “all lost things” laying at the bottom of the lake, under the water, “in that lake with the poor man’s daughter.” It is then, a poem of harrowing certainty. It is one that shares a story so horrible that the title suddenly comes into play. The words “cold” and “lake” are straightforward enough, but the word “knap” will make the younger reader wonder about what is being meant. It is the name of a lake in Wales where this happened.

But the poet is asking us to consider just how much our memories are useful in relating stories. We always tend to embellish our stories on each telling so that when we have told them a hundred times, it is not the story we began with. This is normal and a sign of passing times and age. Clarke is looking back on a story but looking at the present and asking is the past as accurate as I think? When I look at my life over the past four decades of life since I began work at sixteen, I think back and there is a certain element of truth to my memories but a huge amount of what I tell that is questionable. That is what this poem is asking us to consider in our life.