John Wedgwood Clarke, Landfill (Valley Press, £10.99).
John Wedgwood Clarke’s first full collection, Ghost Pot, came with encomia from Carol Rumens, Penelope Shuttle and Michael Symmons Roberts. On its cover, Bernard O’Donoghue called the book, ‘a masterpiece’. Over the years, his poems have appeared in a range of prestigious journals including, Poetry Ireland Review, PN Review and Poetry Review. To that extent, it is surprising that Wedgwood Clarke’s work is not better known. Perhaps his recent television appearances will raise his profile.
Ghost Pot contained a range of poems concerned almost exclusively with the natural world. That natural world was often to be found in and around Yorkshire, where Wedgwood Clark was living and lecturing at universities. But it needs to be emphasised that his poems have never been ‘academic’. The poems in Ghost Pot are closely observed and often sensual evocations of the world. One such is the lovely ‘Grey Mullet’, the ending of which I’ll quote at length,
By the steps, around green chains,
scaling the distance between boat and shadow
oblivious, as they listened out
for someone to arrive, enthralled
by a sound on the edge of their hearing.
Post Ted Hughes, it is often difficult to ‘characterise’ fauna and flora in ways which do not seem precious or sentimental. However, Wedgwood Clarke not only observes carefully but moves that observation, of the mullet hovering in the water, into a personification which emphasises the selfhood of the fish even while still using the human sense of hearing to personify.
Wedgwood Clarke’s new book, Landfill, explores that natural world more in terms of environmental concerns, as might be gleaned from the title…and the cover, Wedgwood Clarke’s own photo of landfill. In this book, too, that concern is held within a closely observant and quite impacted style. These are the first six lines of ‘Waste Oil Tank’,
lightness pouring up the arm.
The terminal barrel winks and gleams,
gorgeously sun-warmed like a holiday wall
under contrails unravelling
their white intestines into almost cloud.
In ‘Waste Oil Tank’, there is something of the kind of personification which we have seen in ‘Grey Mullet’ above. That first line not only creates a suitably oleaginous image, but there is also the sense of oleaginous movement too; and also something more disturbing with that sense of the gullet swallowing the tongue. That disturbance is then followed by the ‘lightness pouring up the arm’, so that transformations become more surreal. The waste oil tank becomes revealed to the reader/viewer as almost having its own sense of disturbing agency. And yet, the disturbance is ameliorated by the image of the sun-warmed holiday wall. Here, Wedgwood Clarke’s powers of observation and simile allow the reader some momentary comfort; until the contrails in the sky, with that image of literal viscera, impress that even in the air above us further pollution is taking place.
However, environmental concerns do not quite dominate this book. Towards the end of Landfill, Wedgwood Clarke offers us ‘Suite for Artificial Voices’. This is a sonnet sequence of four first-person monologues. Perhaps Wedgwood Clarke’s actor training at the Guildhall informs this sequence because they do jump off the page and beg for performance. These poems, too, have a surreal feel to them. This is the end of the second of the sonnets, ‘Laryngectomy’,
You have found a way to make a pause
that is not a comma, and so is like
the white space in which the throat bleeds
when it cannot bandage it with words.
Wedgwood Clarke is reaching into the body here, as he has done with ‘Waste Oil Tank’, but here the body is the body. There is a ‘you’ who, we might presume, is the surgeon treating the patient. But Wedgwood Clarke’s imagination is both vivid and quick enough to have the throat ‘bandag[ing]’ a white space, which we might imagine is both the hollow tube of the throat but also the space left when there are no words. Perhaps Wedgwood Clarke will write more of these ‘speeches’ in future volumes.