- The Riverby Jane Clarke
To say that Jane Clarke’s debut collection, The River, is accessible is not to criticize it, but to honor it with its due. The poems do not so much tell a specific story— though they do that as well—as tell a story that emerges from our shared experience of living and remembering, in an arc that both moves forward in time and reaches backward to the past on which the present is always built. Clarke invokes the natural world of Ireland and, by that gesture, invites readers to imagine their own parallel worlds that, as the epigraph verifies, are “mortal substance [though not] in the same condition.”
The collection’s narrative moves roughly in chronological order, from poems that describe a childhood spent watching her parents’ farm and care for animals, [End Page 157]through the desire for “leaving, making lives / of our own,” to the establishment of an adult life which turns out to be, after all, not so separate from the past. She asks, in “Dusk,” “Do you remember . . . how we longed / for the morning we’d shut the gate and walk away?” Yet even while physically away, in “a New York rush,” the poet-speaker thinks “of the herd of cows / at Dugort,” tethered to her past and her homeland. As she works with her father in his old age, in the poem “January,” “fork[ing] silage, heav[ing] out oats / and barley to curly headed yearlings,” she simultaneously “of other mornings; / herding, reaching up, carry me Daddy.” Similarly, in “Where the River Deepens,” as her aging mother struggles with illness, she reflects on an earlier time when her mother “meets us / at the mill gate on our way home from school.” In that poem, her mother’s “basket [is] heavy with sadness / and buttered scones”; the mother “closes her eyes for a while,” watching her children play, just as in the present, we imagine the ailing mother closing them again for a different reason, merging the daughter’s sadness with her mother’s, both past and present. This is a familiar story, to escape the confines of childhood and family, only to discover we carry them with us.
Moving into the future always suggests mortality. It is no surprise that the final poems in the collection trace Clarke’s parents’ descent into illness and death, which subtly suggests the way all our lives will end—with the loss of parents’ lives and, finally, our own. These poems beautifully reveal the difficulty of letting go, indeed the impossibility of it, another variation on the book’s primary theme. As our lives are rooted in the physical objects of the world—her father’s hands, the note he leaves scrawled for her mother—we both hang onto those objects and realize their insufficiency. In “Back of an Envelope,” the poet’s mother muses, “All those years if I asked him where he was going, / where he had been, he’d act like I’d tethered him / to a post, and then today he leaves a note.” What’s “come over” the father, of course, is the realization of mortality; he leaves a note because soon even that will be impossible. The physical object cannot change the fact of death, but it can acknowledge and attempt to soften it. Similarly, the poet questions, in “all I will need,” whether her mother’s suggestion to “choose / from her pieces of silver” will be “all I need” in the wake of death. Of course it will not be enough: yet keeping something of her mother’s, no matter how insufficient, will help keep memory alive. Even if we could free ourselves from our past, it would cling to us. In “Every Tree,” Clarke describes how she “quit the craft [woodcarving] / my father had carved into me,” yet she cannot quit it completely. She “left all at the threshold, / except for the scent of wood, // a different scent / for every tree.” Something vital remains; all cannot be discarded. In the title poem, the...