Gertrude- a response to Gillian Clarke’s ‘Cold Knap Lake’

1 01 2017

 

Volume 68 of The University of Leicester’s ‘The Use of English’ contained academic essays on the former Welsh Poet Laureate, Gillian Clarke.  On of the articles was written by Gillian, explaining the imagery and contextual significance of her poem ‘Cold Knap Lake’.

My response to the poem, ‘Gertrude’, considers how the accuracy of Clarke’s memories over the drowning girl are similar to Hamlet’s mother’s sensitively recounts Ophelia’s demise.

It can be read in full here:

Gertrude
(in response to Gillian Clarke’s ‘Cold Knap Lake’)

So close to have known
the wild flowers round her brow
buttercups, orchids, the coiled-nettle crown,
you trail her gown,

nearer to her mad tongue
and broken melody you stalk,
then, shy steps short of the brook,
you hear the chant haunting the wood unsing
in watery stillness.
There, you gather the news

over your shoulder
like a body, struggle with the strain,
the black stain it leaves ‘till the guilt fits, soon,
as you deliver the death to her brother.

What is truth?
A report so young that words drip with dew,
Then puddle and grow so quickly green and stagnant
They could cloud memory and coronate
A kinder loss: Ophelia buoyed, jewelled,
Rests on the river’s surface, barely deceased.
Truth can drown a suicide, can float a lie,
Can leave behind a mermaid on that tide.

 

Gillian Clarke’s ‘Cold Knap Lake’ currently remains on the GCSE English syllabus.  The teaching and learning resources prepared by BBC Bitesize, together with the poem, can be found by following this link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/english_literature/poetclarke/coldknaplakerev1.shtml

 

 





Residency at the Dylan Thomas Boathouse, Laugharne

19 10 2016

Day One, Two and Three

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Arriving at the house each morning has been scintillating.

Because of the Boathouse’s autumnal, late-breakfast starts, I have been allowed and extra hour to walk Sir John’s Hill before doors officially open, and have been refreshed and challenged by the unique way of starting a day.  So, on the broad hill opposite Dylan Thomas’ riverside home, instead of the morning commute and the breakfast routine, I have been counting wrens, identifying distant mountains, trying not to appear alarmed at advancing dairy cows.  In place of registering a class of effervescing pupils, I have had an entire bay of calm space to indulge in.

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Every day has had involved meeting with visitors to the Boathouse and encouraging them to share in Dylan Thomas’ imagery, particularly in regard to ‘Poem in October’ and ‘Vision and Prayer’.  And each day will remain memorable for intriguing exchanges or unique encounters: the passing visit to the house by Wales’ Young Person’s Laureate, Sophie Mckeand, and by the Irish author, Andrew Phillip Smith; a visit from Noel James, the ubiquitous driver of the touring ‘writing shed’ around Britain during the Dylan Thomas 100 celebrations; having Scottish poetry recited effortlessly by a lady from Shetland while her son and I watched in amazement, meeting the kindest of folk and shared in their kindest of tales, their poetry recommendations, their thoughts on Dylan.

The most common sensation I’ve experienced though is a blend of euphoria and sadness, for most people who have shared their ideas with me have continued to comment, ‘I haven’t spoken about books in a long time,’ while others have modestly footnoted that their artistic achievements took place, ‘a long, long time ago’.  That a simple sketch, such as this one,  can be the first drawing a qualified illustrator has completed in over a decade, is giving the collective poem a value I had not anticipated.

The rediscovered experiences are paired with utterly fresh ones: yesterday, I read aloud some poetry in Dutch, was asked to ‘be quiet’ while the documentary on Dylan played, was beaten at ‘paper, scissors, stone’ by a four year old (who may have actually been three), stroked a dozen dogs and, finally, did not see the estuary mist up on sudden and heavy rain.

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I even managed to scribble to quick poem, based on a wonderful line Joyce fed to me earlier in the week, and that I had almost forgotten:

‘The weather arrives on the tide, leaves on the tide’

The weather arrives with the tide,

Leaving a grey-windowed sky,

Stilling the house in Sunday parlour silence.

So families wring their wet afternoon

Strung out like a dripping queue

Of clothes, heavy on a washing line,

Blown about the autumnal house:

The apple-red mantelpiece,

red-currant skirting, alder-red cushion,

and Dylan’s windy voice gusts upstairs,

ruddy-cheeked visions and prayers.

The weather leaves with the tide,

And leaves the bay shining,

Glowing, as thick and full,

As a charged glass of red wine.

Each Boathouse day, I have been made to feel entirely welcome by the staff: Toby answers my questions without showing frustration, and gives me enough of his knowledge so that I may, in turn, appear knowledgeable while misinforming visitors; Joyce and Lindsay introduced me to the local gull population, Paul showed me pictures of his stunning portraits, Carol her poetry, Judith her sculpture.  They are blessed with enough craft to inhabit a gallery, but instead have been modestly introducing me as the ‘resident artist’ – mostly before I’m asked for coffee and cake from an arriving tour party.

(Thanks warmly to Ysgol Pen-y-Bryn in Colwyn Bay for allowing me the time to be away, and to Nic and Arthur who are doing the same.)





The shout

20 10 2015

Birthplace (Glyn Maxwell)

She traced her forefinger beneath each line,
as slowly and deliberately as one learning to read,
stroking the skin of the page
so the words stood up like tiny hairs.

‘The task,’ I said, ‘is to make it louder
by hiding some of the poem in the dark.’
But she stared down at the marker pen
as though it was a bullet or a spent shell,
its damage pre-empted, permanent

and, instead, closed her eyes.  In her dark,
she shadowed out the sounds of classroom chairs
being clunk-stacked on the tables, the goodbye bell,
the ‘don’t run down the corridors.’
The poem and the pen and girl were gone
when I returned to the room after bus duty.

‘This poem is about silence, not shouting,’
she tells me the next morning, while the class,
cold and uncaring, slip from their slick coats
into echoing conversations.

Her markings have devoured the poem
so the silhouette that remains is skeletal;
bones she has spat are now shards,
the remaining ribs sharp and dangerous.
All the flat noise has been carved from the paper

and when I rub my finger over the scars made
by her scalpel, to gauge the gulleys there,
the wet marker pricks my fingerprint with ink,
and the sentiment sinks into me anew.