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.