Gillian Clarke
A Recipe for Water

Book Reviews

Published by Carcanet

Showing not Telling

Sue Hubbard finds what slips between languages in collections by Gillian Clarke, Valérie Rouzeau and Ciaran Carson.

In his essay The Task of the Translator, Walter Benjamin asks, ‘What does a literary work “say”?’. ‘No poem’, he suggests, ‘is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener’. In this statement he seems to be implying that a work of art is always a showing rather than a telling and goes on to add:

Its essential quality is not statement or the imparting of information. Yet any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information – hence, something inessential.

Ultimately, translation, he suggests, serves the purpose of expressing the central reciprocal relationship between languages. Benjamin appears to take Freud’s view that art, at its best, reveals the latent content behind what is manifest. Freud said of poets:

“… One may well sigh, when one realizes that it is nevertheless given to a few to draw the most profound insights, without any real effort, from the maelstrom of their own feelings, while we others have to grope our way restlessly to such insights through agonizing insecurity”.

Groping towards meaning is thus the role of psychologist, translator and poet alike. For as in psychoanalysis profound insights are reached through the revelation of what it is we really meant rather than what it is we have apparently said. A poem, thus, becomes an act of almost alchemical transformation, a translation between feeling, meaning and language. This reciprocal relationship between languages, this revelation of what exists in its gaps and spaces, is what these three books have in common. Meaning exists in the gaps between Clarke’s Welsh and English, between the French baby-talk, neologisms and translated English of Rouzeau and Wicks, and in the echoes of Irish, especially the genre of song known as sean-nós (‘old style’), which linger behind Carson’s terse English lines.

Gillian Clarke is one of the central figures in contemporary Welsh poetry, the third to take up the post of National Poet of Wales. Born in Cardiff, she currently runs an organic smallholding in Ceredigion; the Welsh landscape and language are the shaping forces behind her work, providing a framework for self-definition. She exemplifies this position in Pocket Dictionary. Finding a dictionary inscribed in her father’s hand she says:

Here the world
began, and then is now. I am searching
for definitions, ambiguities, way
down through the strata, topsoil, rubble
a band of clay, an inch or so of gravel…

As an archaeologist might search for an understanding of a lost civilization she excavates the dictionary looking for ‘a gleam of meaning, / a sudden uprise of remembering’. For Clarke memory is synonymous with language. In First Words, ‘the alphabet of the house’ was made up of her grandmother’s ‘Cariad, not Darling. / Tide and current are llanw, lli’. The sea speaks in tongues. It tells her forgotten stories, scattering fragments on the shore like longhand in half-remembered, often forbidden Welsh. Clarke’s world is full of the here-and-now, which makes her accessible to a wide range of readers. Whether she is describing a diving otter –

the surface closing over
as the sounding rings of a splash,
smashed the moonlight,

– or the women ‘heaving cloth into tubs, load after load’, in her series on Mumbai, her rich imagery is located in the physical, sensual and actual world. Yet, immediate as her poems are, something deeper and more complex lurks beneath their surface. The past is another country, inhabited by another speech, her mother’s. Clarke was the child of a tenant farm, where her mother’s Welsh tongue was suppressed, ‘spat out like a curse’, so that it didn’t sound to the daughter like ‘a language older than legend’. In her Glas y Dorlan, Gillian Clarke describes stopping in the Brecon Beacons for a picnic as a child with her father. ‘Let’s begin by naming the creatures’, he announces. Then, with ‘a sudden electric blue’ and ‘a shock through the heart’, they see a kingfisher. Pioden y Dŵr, Glas y Dorlan. Blue-by-the Riverbank. Heritage is experienced through this dual relationship to language and the world named through words, which become triggers of remembrance as much as any Proustian madeleine.

Throughout these poems memory and water are intertwined. Names of rivers run through them – the Severn, the Dyfi, the Neb and Ouse. A man ‘wrapped in a waterfall, / undressing himself of the city’s dirt’ in India lets the ‘bright rope of water’ run through his hands. Here water becomes an element of rebirth, through which he will become cleansed and ‘blameless as a newborn’. Elsewhere Clarke remembers her father passing the time with stories as they drove to the sea, teaching her words ‘the ‘gw’and ‘w’ of wind and water, / the ll-ll-ll of waves on the shore’. Here was a child for whom the lost mother tongue became synonymous with the deepest emotions, those of a daughter for her father. ‘Tell me the names for the hare!’, she commands. ‘Sgwarnog for its long ears. / Cochen for it red-brown fur’, he tells her, as if sharing a secret. Clarke’s work is characterized by it inclusiveness, its humanity and deep feeling towards the landscape and natural world. There is only ever the very occasional false note, where something is overstated, such as a river becoming a ‘water-dragon’ in an unnecessarily Gothic image.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

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