Polly Clark was born in 1968 in Canada and brought up in Britain. She left
school at 16 to pursue a variety of careers, including zookeeping at
Edinburgh Zoo, teaching English in Hungary and writing for Paul Raymond
Publications. She studied English and Philosophy at university and also
recently completed an MA in English. In 1992 she settled in Oxford where
she still lives and works, and in 1997 she won an Eric Gregory Award for
her poetry. Her first collection is published by Bloodaxe in 2000 and a
selection of her work appears in New Blood (July 1999), Bloodaxe’s sequel to Poetry With an Edge.
Clark shows the complex and often brutal making of a self in her
poems, from first passions, through losses and disappointments, to
attempts to understand and forgive origins. The forces which shape who we
are take on many personalities: surgeons, horses, Amazon parrots and huge
beetles all have lessons to teach about loss, bereavement and the shaping
of a fragile identity. Who decides who we are and what we will be? Her
journey encompasses diverse locations, from her native Canada to Edinburgh
Zoo, demonstrating that places can be as important as people in shaping
our internal landscape.
Polly Clark: Six Poems
There are things which you gave me:
a bundle of letters written in green,
a man’s nose, a curly way of writing ‘P’;
and there are things which I took:
this unsmiling photograph,
this t-shirt, the taste of you washed out of it.
In a bright hospital
you offered your death to me.
You gave it slowly, over months,
then crazily, hand over fist.
You let me come when others must not come.
You let me sit beside you through the night.
This is vulnerability, the gift tag said,
your gift to me.
But of course it wasn’t enough.
I couldn’t stop a habit so long engrained.
On the last night, I snatched
a long look at you when we were alone.
a touch from your hand on my mouth
that you would never have allowed.
your smile at the sound of my name
an I ran with it.
Like a stolen child
that all of Scotland Yard
and all the world’s fathers are searching for,
I shut it in a dark place
where I wrapped it
over and over
in my delight.
In the morning the track paled
to fit only two feet pressing down
to the proud wreckage at the sea’s breast;
all the long night I lay in your damp bed,
felt how the sheets that wrapped you
loved me less, breaking the hours
with sips of peat-treacled water.
I dreamed of you as dawn
flooded over the dry stone walls.
I never spoke of it. I broke instead
the bull’s skull from its armoury of shells,
dragged it home, to bleach away its shadows.
Snow, exploded stone,
a chance to be air
taken brutally –
coughing I raise myself,
like the girl I saw kicked to the floor,
who got up six times
and kept on walking,
eyes fixed beyond despair.
In my face
explodes the sky, expelling me;
smother it, kick it,
the boy in boots has made his judgement.
The boy in boots
crashed his motorbike later,
impaled himself on railings.
I knew it was retribution.
I took his inarticulate hate
and made it my own.
A Lunch Date with my Father
As you’re speaking I’m dreaming
of leaning over the pizza
of leaning over the salad
of leaning over to stop with a kiss
the sun crashing through the window
like a lion with huge paws.
My father’s eyes are black as a canopy,
my father’s lip is hard as a tusk,
my father’s heart is a broken river;
beside my father I feel like a vulture.
Later we embrace like cubs,
whose parents are gone, lost in the sun.
At first we devoured it,
at 30p, so astoundingly cheap,
dark brown and sweet,
its smell whorling into the air from the sör gyár.
Americans wouldn’t touch it,
so goddamn thick they complained,
while the locals leant around bottles of it,
their child-tummied bodies
packing the tiny sörözõ,
their hard laughter
clattering out into the dusty street.
Years on, we’ve come back
to find most things more faded still,
except the labels on the Szalon
which now show a king with his glass raised,
and horsemen galloping in to crush the Turks,
and with glasses to match
embossed in brilliant red and gold.
We are thrilled, we barter excitedly
and take a set from the waiter for 500 forints.
We give them pride of place in our livingrooms,
stack our best pens in them.
The Pet Rabbit
I can’t call it love, I call it white,
a slash of rock, a touchable sky,
colourless, but swallowing light
with hollowed out hands and mis-shapen eye,
stooping to smell me and whispering my
as it scoops me up from the muddied rain,
mumbling dumbly, an attempt to explain
its need of me, its fear of being alone,
for which I am the talisman, a familiar black,
set in a box like a glittering stone
where it nourishes me as though I were its lack,
bringing fragments of life, holding a universe back,
and at the end of the day taking sound and all light
to an easier sleep, to a dreamfilled night.
Polly Clark discusses her poems with The Richmond Review‘s poetry editor Michael Bradshaw
Michael Bradshaw: Can you say something about the Eric Gregory Award? What effect has winning the award in 1997 had on your writing and publications?
Polly Clark: Winning an Eric Gregory Award changed my life. Before then I was writing in a very isolated way: I knew hardly any poets, certainly no one who was famous, and although I had been published in some magazines, I still kept my writing life entirely separate from what I thought was my ‘real’ life. The Gregory Award was the first time the wider poetry world had noticed me and it was a heady experience. However, it didn’t make publishers crush each other in a stampede to publish me, nor did magazines take any more notice of me. Its major effect was on my writing itself: I felt braver, and I began to write more bravely too.
MB: Two poems about your father in this selection deal with inheritance and suggest the intense strangeness of close family ties. Do the motifs of theft, flight and pursuit in ‘Kleptomaniac’ extend through your writing?
PC: One of the things I’m trying to articulate in my poems is loss, which of course is difficult, because the experience of loss is actually more of a wordless and emptying thing. My poems often circle around it, examining the margins of it and, one might say, the ‘thefts and pursuits’ which express and define it. I’ve been told before that some of my poems are “about being wordless”. I’m trying to get at what can’t be expressed. The “intense strangeness of close family ties” is also something I’m very interested in. In some family relationships the intimacy is of a unique kind, less about ‘love’ than an almost primitive attachment. I’m very drawn in my writing to what that means: to be attached forever to people without necessarily experiencing that as love. The motifs you mention apply here too: I think that emotionally we steal and pursue what we are not given.
MB: ‘South Uist’ and ‘Retribution’ seem to imagine violent emotion, whether love or anger, as essentially private experiences. What, do you think, is the tension between the ‘I never spoke of it’ (in the final stanza of ‘South Uist’) and ‘speaking about it’ in a published poem?
PC: Interesting question. I experience poetry as a different kind of language really, one which can express the violence of feeling which ordinary speech is simply not equipped to deal with. I don’t myself feel a tension between the ‘I never spoke of it’ and the ‘speaking’ of a poem. To me it is simply not possible to articulate the truth of experience in ordinary language: all ordinary speech is designed to obscure the truth. My writing is the only place where I am able to be fully truthful, fully authentic. There is, however, indeed a tension between writing the poem and publishing it. I suppose like all people who are driven to express themselves, I want to be heard, and it’s the only way open to me.
MB: ‘Retribution’ is a poem of violent transformation which is cryptic about its occasion; would you be prepared to say where the images of the beaten girl and the boy in boots come from?
PC: Retribution is about being bullied, but I think the actual situation is less important than the negative transformation which violence brings.
MB: Based on your experiences of living and working in Hungary, ‘Szalon Sor’ ends with the act of stacking pens in beer glasses; the glasses are decorated with an old picture of ‘horsemen galloping in to crush the Turks’. Does this poem have a view on historical transformation in central Europe, and what is the relationship between the beer, the swords and the pens?
PC: The poem’s ‘view’ is really of the tourist, and the way poorer countries will give tourists anything, including a travesty of their history. The Hungarians have only recently started to be interested in attracting tourists seriously, and in retrospect it seemed sad to me that such a proud history was reduced to emblems on beer glasses, and that ignorant foreigners like me would pay the equivalent of two days’ wages for them, without really appreciating their meaning. In terms of the relationship between the beer, swords and pens, I suppose I’m trying to demonstrate the contrast between one culture, in this case the Hungarian culture, and the reality of where it ends up when it is ‘exported’.
MB: There is some engagingly savage wildlife in ‘A Lunch Date With My Father’, and ‘The Pet Rabbit’ gives a rabbit’s-eye view of a young child. Do you think the (English) ‘animal poem’ has undergone some interesting changes in recent years?
PC: I’m not sure I’m aware of a distinct genre of animal poem, but it seems to me that our late 20th century awareness of animals as sentient and suffering has affected the way we use them as symbols. I doubt that a poem like Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ could be written now: we are much too aware of the fragility of great predators. Possibly animals are more symbolic of vulnerability and human destructive powers, rather than the magical forces of nature they might once have represented.
MB: Your first collection is due out from Bloodaxe in 2000. What are you writing now, and do you look for continuity or departure from the styles we read here?
PC: I’m still at present completing the collection for Bloodaxe. Just as the manuscript was accepted I was starting to move in a slightly new direction and Neil Astley, the editor, spotted this and suggested leaving the manuscript quite fluid for a while so that I could follow this development. I’m very happy with the way it has been going: if there’s any departure of style from those you see here it is only that I have been able recently to explore ideas in slightly longer poems. It’s hard for me to imagine an ‘after’ the book: everything I have to give at the moment is going into this first collection.
(This conversation between Michael Bradshaw and Polly Clark was
conducted by e-mail between Tokyo, Japan and Oxford, England, in May 1999.)
Copyright © Polly Clark 1999
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