Death of a Young Woman by Gillian Clarke

She died on a hot day. In a way

Nothing was different. The stretched white

Sheet of her skin tightened no further.

She was fragile as a yacht before,

Floating so still on the blue day’s length,

That one would not know when the breath

Blew out and the sail finally slackened.

Her eyes had looked opaquely in the

Wrong place to find those who smiled

From the bedside, and for a long time

Our conversations were silent.

The difference was that in her house

The people were broken by her loss.

He wept for her and for the hard tasks

He had lovingly done, for the short,

Fierce life she had lived in the white bed,

For the burden he had put down for good.

As we sat huddled in pubs supporting

Him with beer and words’ warm breath,

We felt the hollowness of his release.

Our own ungrateful health prowled, young,

Gauche about her death. He was polite,

Isolated. Free. No point in going home.

by Gillian Clarke

from The Sundial (Gwasg Gomer) (1978)

Blaen Cwrt by Gillian Clarke

You ask how it is. I will tell you.

There is no glass. The air spins in

The stone rectangle. We warm our hands

With apple wood. Some of the smoke

Rises against the ploughed, brown field

As a sign to our neighbours in the

Four folds of the valley that we are in.

Some of the smoke seeps through the stones

Into the barn where it curls like fern

On the walls. Holding a thick root

I press my bucket through the surface

Of the water, lift it brimming and skim

The leaves away. Our fingers curl on

Enamel mugs of tea, like ploughmen.

The stones clear in the rain

Giving their colours. It’s not easy.

There are no brochure blues or boiled sweet

Reds. All is ochre and earth and cloud-green

Nettles tasting sour and the smells of moist

Earth and sheep’s wool. The wattle and daub

Chimney hood has decayed away, slowly

Creeping to dust, chalking the slate

Floor with stories. It has all the first

Necessities for a high standard

Of civilised living: silence inside

A circle of sound, water and fire,

Light on uncountable miles of mountain

From a big, unpredictable sky,

Two rooms, waking and sleeping,

Two languages, two centuries of past

To ponder on, and the basic need

To work hard in order to survive.

.

By Gillian Clarke

from The Sundial (Gwasg Gomer) 1978

.

Additional information:

When her children were young, Clarke bought and renovated an old, ruined small holding called Blaen Cwrt in Talgarreg, south Ceredigion, where she now lives, and which she often figures as her poetic ‘milltir sgwâr’ (square mile). […] Reminiscing on that time and that house as formative to the emergence of her poetic voice, Clarke recalls that ‘to “work hard” meant more than one thing. It’s both chopping wood, carrying water, and writing about it.’

Dr Siriol McAvoy, Gillian Clarke: My Box (A help-sheet for teachers) CREW: Centre for Research into the English Literature and Language of Wales, Swansea University, August 2018

Journey by Gillian Clarke

As far as I am concerned
We are driving into oblivion.
On either side there is nothing,
And beyond your driving
Shaft of light it is black.
You are a miner digging
For a future, a mineral
Relationship in the dark.
I can hear the darkness drip
From the other world where people
Might be sleeping, might be alive.

Certainly there are white
Gates with churns waiting
For morning, their cream standing.
Once we saw an old table
Standing square on the grass verge.
Our lamps swept it clean, shook
The crumbs into the hedge and left it.
A tractor too, beside a load
Of logs, bringing from a deeper
Dark a damp whiff of the fungoid
Sterility of the conifers.

Complacently I sit, swathed
In sleepiness. A door shuts
At the end of a dark corridor.
Ahead not a cat's eye winks
To deceive us with its green
Invitation. As you hurl us
Into the black contracting
Chasm, I submit like a blind
And folded baby, being born.

by Gillian Clarke
from The Sundial (Gwasg Gomer, 1978)

Choughs by Gillian Clarke

I follow you downhill to the edge
my feet taking as naturally as yours
To a sideways tread, finding footholds
Easily in the turf, accustomed
As we are to a sloping country.

The cliffs buttress the bay's curve to the north
And here drop sheer and sudden to the sea
The choughs plummet from sight then ride
The updraught of the cliff's mild yellow
Light, fold, fall with closed wings for the sky.

At the last moment as in unison they turn
A ripcord of the wind is pulled in time.
He gives her food and the saliva
Of his red mouth, draws her black feathers, sweet
As shining grass across his bill.

Rare birds that pair for life. There they go
Divebombing the marbled wave a yard
Above the spray. Wings flick open
A stoop away
From the drawn teeth of the sea.


by Gillian Clarke
from The Sundial (Gwasg Gomer)
(1978)

Additional information: While the chough‘s black plumage identifies it as a crow, the chough (pronounced ‘chuff’) has a red bill and legs unlike any other member of the crow family. It is restricted to the west of the British Isles.

It readily displays its mastery of flight with wonderful aerial displays of diving and swooping. This Schedule 1 species can be found in flocks in autumn and winter.

Night Sky by R.S. Thomas

What they are saying is
that there is life there, too;
that the universe is the size it is
to enable us to catch up.

They have gone on from the human;
that shining is a reflection
of their intelligence. Godhead
is the colonisation by mind

of untenanted space. It is its own
light, a statement beyond language
of conceptual truth. Every night
is a rinsing myself of the darkness

that is in my veins. I let the stars inject me
with fire, silent as it is far,
but certain in its cauterising
of my despair. I am a slow

traveller. But there is more than time
to arrive. Resting in the intervals
of my breathing, I pick up the signals
relayed to me from a periphery I comprehend.

by R. S. Thomas
from Frequencies (1978)

The Film of God by R.S. Thomas

Sound, too? The recorder
that picks up everything picked
up nothing but the natural
background. What language
does the god speak? And the camera's
lens, as sensitive to
an absence as to a presence,
saw what? What is the colour
of his thought?
It was blank, then,
the screen, as far as he
was concerned? It was a bare
landscape and harsh, and geological
its time. But the rock was
bright, the illuminated manuscript
of the lichen. And a shadow,
as we watched, fell, as though
of an unseen writer bending over
his work.
It was not cloud
because it was not cold,
and dark only from the candlepower
behind it. And we waited
for it to move, silently
as the spool turned, waited
for the figure that cast it
to come into view for us to
identify it, and it
didn't and we are still waiting.


By R.S. Thomas
from Frequencies (1978)

St Augustine’s, Penarth by Gillian Clarke

 The church is like the prow
Of a smoky ship, moving
On the down channel currents
To the open sea. A stone

Figurehead, the flowing light
Streams from it. From everywhere
You can see Top Church, remote
As high church is from chapel.


Church high on the summit
Of the climbing town
Where I was a child, where rain
Runs always slantingly

On streets like tilted chutes
Of grey sliding on all sides
From the church, to sea and dock,
To shopping streets and home.

Bresting the cloud, its stone
Profile of an ancient priest
Preaches continuity
In the face of turning tides.

by Gillain Clarke
from The Sundial (Gwasg Gomer, 1978)

Information: St Augustine’s Church is a Grade I listed Gothic Revival nineteenth-century parish church in Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan, Wales. Wales has, historically, had a strong chapel community in the valleys where small community cogregations, with their lay preachers, were far more common than larger organised churches.

Pre-Cambrian by R. S. Thomas

Here I think of the centuries,

six million of them, they say.

Yesterday a fine rain fell;

today the warmth has brought out the crowds.

After Christ, what? The molecules

are without redemption. My shadow

sunning itself on this stone

remembers the lava. Zeus looked down

on a brave world, but there was

no love there; the architecture

of their temples was less permanent

than these waves. Plato, Aristotle,

all those who furrow the calmness

of their foreheads are responsible

for the bomb. I am charmed here

by the serenity of the reflections

in the sea's mirror. It is a window

as well. What I need

now is a faith to enable me to out-stare

the grinning faces of the inmates of its asylum,

the failed experiments God put away.


by R. S. Thomas

from Frequencies (1978)

Curlew by Gillian Clarke

She dips her bill in the rim of the sea.

Her beak is the ellipse

of a world much smaller

than that far section of the sea’s

circumference. A curve enough to calculate

the field’s circle and its heart

of eggs in the cold grass.

 

All day while I scythed my territory

out of nettles, laid claim to my cantref,

she has cut her share of sky. Her song bubbles

long as a plane trail from her savage mouth.

I clean the blade with newspaper. Dusk blurs

circle within circle till there’s nothing left

but the egg pulsing in the dark against her ribs.

For each of us the possessed space contracts

to the nest’s heat, the blood’s small cicuit.

 

by Gillian Clarke

from The Sundial (Gwasg Gomer, 1978)


Fun fact: A cantref was a medieval Welsh land division, particularly important in the administration of Welsh law.