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.