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

 

 

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O Captain! My Captain!

27 07 2014

He claps lined hands together,
rubs one through the palm of the other
as if he is testing its grain.
His tongue is swung over
the gate of his grin like a leg
that kicks in time to the clock hands.
Not daring to turn, we all check the hour
through his face, see how his eyelids pull
tautly and tremble when the lunch bell comes.
And then he staggers forward for the chase
to clear a solar system of balls from the yard. But,

today he stops, his frame ducks
in the doorway, and turns.
‘No one late this afternoon. No excuses.’
His foot draws a slice out of the ox blood
carpet tile; it guillotines literature in two,
announces lunch.
Usually, we run up the hill
to my house in time for Neighbours, Home and Away,
fry the bacon black, throw it down the hatch,
then back, back, back,
in time for the fifth period bell. But,

today we refuse to rush the plan
we’ve rehearsed. Hudd’s bag heaves
with goods nabbed: chorizo, quail eggs, cigars,
sangria. He strategises on stealing
the absurd from Iceland – theming
thefts to evade suspicion. He taps his nose,
‘No one inspects the Spanish exhibition.’
We watch Dead Poets’ Society in confessional quiet
until he purges himself of his mum’s worries:
all the missed lessons; the Advocaat bottles;
pornos wrapped up in university prospectusus. Prospectusi. Prospectuses. ‘But,

today we’ll call the school and pretend to be God’, I say
we’ll reassure his mum to seize her own days.
He won’t look at me though,
he wants to sew the introductions
back in the books. And so we return,
too late to escape punishment, two heads
for the axe. We expect him sullenly staring
out the at the car park, brooding
at the bumpers backed up against the window,
dwelling on our transgression,
a hand rested on a telephone. But

Instead he’s standing on a desk, helicoptering
his arms, vibrating the room, stamping
on Jones’ book, screaming, face blooded
by belief. The boys are in triumph,
applauding as one congregation. Their chorus
carries him aloft. And I understand too late,
that we are outside, silent and holding nothing.

O captain! my captain,
you didn’t make our seconds slow
you didn’t crave to see us gone,
you ached for us not to go.