Poem of the week: Spring Equinox, 2021 by Gillian Clarke | Poetry

Poem of the week: Spring Equinox, 2021 by Gillian Clarke | Poetry

Spring Equinox, 2021

First summer night
in a world remade,
streets are carless,
silence walks the roads.

Flamboyant, a kite
floats flame on blue,
flexes wings and the fork of its tail
and turns on a breath.

Miles high above the fields,
over flights of rooks, crows, gulls,
over the cities, the clouds,
the atmosphere,

in the vault of heaven
the ozone layer clears
of particulates, of nitrogen dioxide,
and we breathe again.

In this clean new silence
all sound is birdsong,
a small wind
in the trees,

the fall of a petal,
an opening leaf,
the turn of a page,
your breath, mine.

The Silence, the latest collection by the Cardiff-born poet, Gillian Clarke, opens with retrospective poems concerning the Covid pandemic. These records of loss are reverently assembled in the sequence, Hours, and sharply focused in briefer elegies such as The Year of the Dead (quoted on her publisher’s website).

Lockdowns had their advantages, though, and the mood “turns” significantly in Spring Equinox, 2021. Now the focus is on the gain to the “natural” world from the reduction of human activities. At first, we hear the silence itself, a presence that “walks the roads” in the absence of traffic: it seems to pad along softly, as silence often seems to when we listen hard to it and find, after all, our ears give it palpability. Later in the poem, in verse six, the tiniest sounds are conjured by the moment’s elation: to hear “the fall of a petal” or “an opening leaf …” is to enter mysteries.

Clarke interweaves her quietly stepping silences with intimations of colour and noise. The Red Kite, a species which has been registered “at risk” in Wales, becomes “flamboyant” in both senses of the word: showy and flame-like, glorying in the triumphant return to its habitat as it “turns on a breath” (like life itself). The third verse produces a vociferous, soaring crowd of “rooks, crows, gulls” as the reader’s eye is led higher and higher, “over the cities, the clouds,/ the atmosphere …” until we reach the “vault of heaven”.

The phrase “vault of heaven” recalls a dramatic, fiery and surely noisy turn of events set in motion by Satan in Book 1 of Milton’s Paradise Lost, (lines 663 -669): “He spoke; and to confirm the words, out-flew/ Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs/ Of mighty Cherubim; the sudden blaze/ Far round illumin’d Hell. Highly they raged/ Against the Highest, and fierce with grasped arms/ Clash’d on their sounding shields the din of war,/ Hurling defiance towards the vault of Heav’n.” If, like the poet, we can recall that passage, we’re closer to grasping the context of the silent cleansing. It is our own satanic machinery that has assaulted the ozone layer with those “particulates” which, for the charmed moment of the poem, have begun to clear.

This verse ends with the relief that is now haunted by the oxygen-depleting respiratory virus, “and we breathe again”. No more gasping for air, no more terrible “noises off”: the poem evokes a new heaven on Earth, where “all sound is birdsong”. And then, in that intense focus on “birdsong”, the other smaller sounds seem to detach themselves and become recognisable.

I like the intimacy of the conclusion, which suggests a couple silently reading together, feeling the power of their continuing survival as they become conscious of a sound – that of each other’s breathing. The breaths are individually, singly registered, “your breath, mine”. So much in this short poem “turns on a breath”.

The Silence is not concerned only with the pandemic. Gillian Clarke’s writing frequently offsets her awareness of the naturalness and depth of her roots in rural Wales with the sense of strangeness which comes from having English as her “mother-tongue”. These meditations are delicately handled in the collection, and particularly striking in the context of environmental catastrophe. What now threatens the landscape which Clarke has farmed and nurtured, in life as in verse, are shadows which roll across the globe, turning, for many people, the possibility of belonging anywhere into wishful thinking. The Silence is full of poems which remind us of the importance of place, and the demand of its words and silences to be listened to.

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