Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Polly Clark

The late John Peel, the only UK DJ who made any real contribution to the development of contemporary music, remarked once on his radio show that he distrusted perfection in an album. A flaw, a duff song, often showed that an artist was prepared to take chances and experiment. An album in which every song was perfect usually meant that the artist had played it safe all the way through. Peel liked musicians who strayed from their comfort zones.

I feel the same could be said about collections of poetry. When I read a collection, I don’t need to like every poem to enjoy the complete package. I suspect that most great poets write only a few great poems in their lifetimes, many good ones, and a few really bad ones. These bad ones, the flaws, are probably as important to poetic development as the great ones, even if they might be missed out of the “Greatest Hits” packages.

Polly Clark doesn’t write many bad poems. All her poems display great skill and craft. But I enjoyed some of the poems in her new collection Take Me With You much more than others. I like the way she rarely draws her poems to the most obvious conclusion, the way the poems hint at mystery, the way her extended metaphors twist up and unravel like snakes. Equally, a few poems (and I really mean a few) fall flat, just enough to convince me that she has managed to escape the curse of perfection.

Take Me With You is her second collection. Polly Clark was born in Toronto in 1968, and spent most of her life in the UK. She even worked for a time as a zookeeper in Edinburgh, and now divides her time between the south-west of Scotland and the south of England.

There is a great deal to like. She often approaches her subjects from an oblique, imaginative angle:

Nagyvzsony Castle
Balaton, Hungary

There was a time when I was buried
deep in the walls of a far ruin

and it was not language that saved me,
nor was it history, nor was it me at all,

but the way that certain people can sense
warmth through stone and start pulling.

Far below, my friends are laughing,
children squeal to the stocks and the dungeon.

The green country I remember reaches out,
sunflowers break its heart, vines stitch it whole.

I remember the incantation,
the laying on of hands,

my blanket as I got to my feet,
the command to be forever amazed.

The testimony to the power of human warmth and what it can draw out or even "command" (including the concluding amazement), the almost religious sense of healing, and the intriguing line, “sunflowers break its heart, vines stitch it whole”, make this well-crafted poem affecting.

In a completely different mould:

Elvis the Performing Octopus

hangs in the tank like a ruined balloon,
an eight-armed suit sucked empty,

ushering the briefest whisper
across the surface, keeping

his slurred drift steady with an effort
massive as the ocean resisting the moon.

When the last technician,
whistling his own colourless tune,

splashes through the disinfectant tray,
one might see, had anyone been left to look,

Elvis changing from spilt milk to tumbling blue,
pulsing with colour like a forest in sunlight.

Elvis does the full range, even the spinning top
that never quite worked out, as the striplight fizzes

and the flylamp cracks like a firework.
Elvis has the water applauding,

and the brooms, the draped cloths, the dripping tap,
might say that a story that ends in the wrong place

always ends like this -
fabulous in an empty room

unravelled by the tender men in white,
laid out softly in the morning.

The first few lines are great, with two grippingly strong images. Then there’s the comic showbiz images in the middle, the unseen moves that pulse with colour in contrast to the technician’s colourless tune after he’s walked through the disinfectant. In conclusion, there’s the sad image of the octopus laid out in the morning, but my favourite lines are:

and the brooms, the draped cloths, the dripping tap
might say that a story that ends in the wrong place

always ends like this -
fabulous in an empty room

That’s brilliant. And the interweaving of tragic and comic images throughout is perfect for the subject matter at all levels.

I’m about three-quarters of the way through the collection now and have found it absorbing. And it was a relief to find the odd poem that did nothing for me. Polly Clark is clearly stretching herself. I've not yet felt bored.


Messalina said...

Hi Rob,

I've just started this collection - only a dozen or so pages in - and so far, I'm not engaging that well with it. Quite like 'Hedgehog' but a lot of the time, my reaction is a bit 'so what?'.

I'm sticking with it and seeing how it goes. Very useful to see your thoughts on it - hope you will come back to update your views when you've finished the whole book.

Rob Mackenzie said...

I thought the first two poems (the opener in particular) in the book were the worst of all of them so far. But I'm really glad I kept going.
I'd be interested to know what you think of the collection once you've finished it too.