Jane Clarke

Jane Clarke

Jane Clarke's first collection, The River (Bloodaxe Books, 2015) was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize. She also won the 2016 Hennessy Literary Award for Emerging Poetry and the inaugural Listowel Writers’ Week Poem of the Year Award 2016. She holds a BA in English & Philosophy from Trinity College, Dublin and an MPhil in Writing from the University of South Wales. Jane works as a creative writing tutor and group facilitator. She lives with her wife in Glenmalure, Co. Wicklow.

 

Jane Clarke – On All the Way Home

Our kind thanks to Skylight47poetry magazine for kindly allowing us to share this article. 

 

Jane Clarke reflects on the process of writing a sequence of poems in response to a family archive of World War I letters and photographs.

 

All the Way Home (Smith|Doorstop, 2019)

 

Against barbarity, poetry can resist only by cultivating an attachment to human fragility, like a blade of grass growing on a wall as armies march by. – Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008)

 

In April 2017 Gill Stoker in the Mary Evans Picture Library, London, asked me if I’d be interested in writing a sequence of poems in response to a First World War archive. I was hesitant initially. What if the letters and photographs didn’t ignite the spark that gets a poem going? What if this project took me away from the work on my second collection? I was anxious not to write poems that would in any way glorify or romanticize war.

 

But the brother and sister won me over; their letters and photographs told the story of the impact of war on one family amongst so many others. Albert Auerbach joined the British army on September first 1914 and died on the Somme four years later to the day. His sister, Lucy, survived the war and lived on into the early 1970’s. Learning that Albert and Lucy’s paternal grandparents were German underlined for me the absurdity and tragedy of war. I replied to the invitation with a cautious yes.

 

Soon I realised the difficulty of finding fresh ways to write about the experience of the First World War. I had to abandon poems because they were too clichéd or using over-statement and worn out imagery. Perhaps the voices of Owens, Sassoon and Rosenberg were echoing too loudly. I had to search for a more allusive approach.

 

As the poems accumulated I saw a story emerging in the voices of the brother and the sister. I wanted each poem to stand on its own whilst gaining meaning and resonance when read alongside the photographs and the other poems. Neither the Mary Evans Picture Library nor Albert and Lucy’s niece, Patricia Aubrey, tried to influence my work in any way, giving me creative freedom that was essential. An Arts Council bursary bought me time for both research and writing. I read novels of the war and read widely among the First World War poets, discovering many women. I visited museums and exhibitions, the most striking of which was the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres and the surrounding cemeteries. I looked at paintings, read history books, listened to recordings of soldiers and returned to the letters and photographs.

 

I felt a strong sense of empathy with Lucy because of my own recent experience of the illness of my close friend, the poet Shirley McClure and my father. I knew what it was like to wake up worrying about someone you love, to carry them in your heart every day, to wait for news of them and to feel a terrible sense of powerlessness. The experience of accompanying both Shirley and my father in illness and death and my subsequent mourning was part of what fueled this sequence.

 

Poems came in response to details in the letters and photographs. ‘Milk’ was set going by a photo of Lucy standing with a Jersey cow at her side.  I imagined this young woman from London learning to milk a cow during her time in the Land Army on a farm near Malvern. Albert was invalided home with shell shock before returning to the front in June 1918. Knowing that Lucy was a pianist, I wrote a poem imagining her wish that she could ease his suffering with music.

 

‘Ling’ was inspired by a letter from Albert to Lucy in which he thanks her for sending him a sprig of heather. He wrote this letter from the Somme on the 18th August 1918, just two weeks before he was killed. Another poem came in response to a photograph of Lucy walking on her own through trenches at Bouchavesnes when she went to search for her brother’s grave a few years after the war had ended. Three poems acknowledge the role of Irish men and women in the war. The numbers of displaced people resonated with contemporary experience and led to a poem about a young Belgian refugee. The last poem I wrote was ‘Snow’, inspired by a paragraph in Vera Brittain’s memoir, Testament of Youth, where she describes opening her fiancé’s kit, returned by the army after his death.

 

A few weeks ago I discussed the sequence with Olivia O’Leary on the Poetry Programme, (RTE Radio 1). My uncle heard the piece and contacted me immediately, asking if I knew that my great-grandmother had lost two brothers at the Somme. I didn’t know or at least not consciously. Perhaps all along I was writing these poems for two sisters, Lucy in London and Abby in Kircubbin, Co. Down.

 

 

Jane Clarke

 

All the Way Home, an illustrated booklet of poems, will be published by Smith|Doorstop in April 2019. Jane Clarke’s second collection, When the Tree Falls, will be published by Bloodaxe in September 2019.

 

This article was originally printed in Skylight47poetry.

 


Reviews for All the Way Home (Smith|Doorstop, 2019)

 

The First World War was a violent rupture not just in families but whole communities, and in particular the rural way of life. With her fine tact and sensitivity to the physical rhythms of the countryside, Jane Clarke re-weaves the tender fabric of the memories that those on active service would have taken with them, and the lack their absence left for those at home. It is a kind of healing.

– Philip Gross

 

Jane Clarke brings emotional tact and lightness of touch to this resonant evocation of one family's experience of the First World War. The poems are earthy and transcendent, intimate yet restrained. Like the music in 'The Pianist', each poem powerfully "returns us / to quietness”. 

– Moniza Alvi

All the Way Home explores the experience of war for a brother at the Front and his sister at home, in response to the Auerbach family archive of World War I letters and photographs represented by the Mary Evans Picture Library. These compelling and subtle but lucid poems tell one story amongst many, a testimony to lives lost and maimed.

Snow


began to fall before dawn,
blown horizontal in easterly winds
from across the hill. By evening
it lies deep in banks and drifts;

hedges become whitewashed walls,
barrels turn into haystacks,
the wood pile disappears.
I could almost believe

that we haven’t received
your mud-caked kit, breeches ripped
from ankle to hip, bloodied tunic,
your helmet, slightly dinged,

and the watch you won at school.
I could believe you’ll be with us
for dinner, having walked in your trench boots,
all the way home through the snow.

 

from All the Way Home (Smith|Doorstop, 2019)

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