A Handbook for the Afterlife, Polly Clark
Templar Poetry, 2015 £5.00
Writing un-darkly about darkness
How can a poet be tender, funny and delightful even as darkness spills into her poems?
Because scary things happen in this pamphlet. The ‘Afterlife’ in the title does indicate the presence of death. There’s loss; there’s shit (literally when ‘a cowboy in overalls’ clears the drain); there’s humiliation, violence and grief; there’s fear; there’s a small child with ‘an abandoned smell’. The last three lines of the last poem (‘Hive’) are:
Oh my neighbour, are we safe?
Is this what being safe
The world of this pamphlet is not safe. And yet something about the honesty and warmth of the writer makes almost every poem feel like a personal gift. How often do you open a collection and literally sit up, astonished, as one text after another connects with the clunk-click of recognition?
There are children here, and they’re vulnerable. In the opening poem, ‘Heaven’, the poet and her husband have to re-create heaven (in which they do not believe) because their daughter ‘is broken-hearted that we will die and leave her / without mummy and daddy’. This little girl is facing facts about death, and her mother can’t bear her distress. And it’s funny, isn’t it, re-inventing paradise ‘at 5pm over cheesy pasta’? But it’s also not funny. This is how the poem ends (please note: the mother doesn’t wake the sleeping child):
I want to wake her from the deep teary
slumber she’s fallen into to tell her, darling
it has a name, the place we’re all going to
with Hamish on a lead, it has a lovely name.
Daddy and I forgot to tell you, here, I’ll whisper –
everyone you love will be there.
If only. This could be bleak. The ‘deep teary / slumber’ is bleak. But something about the way it’s handled makes it okay. Polly Clark offers the truth, which she offsets with tenderness and love. The love is radiant and true: you can feel its warmth. Mysteriously, it’s strong enough to deal with all the ‘procession of our worst’ as ‘dark is falling’.
The angel in the detail
There are only eleven poems in this collection. It’s hard to believe. I came away convinced I’d read a whole book. The poems are so perfectly-wrought they open up, for me, immeasurably more than most. And part of the pathos is undoubtedly – as with the best poetry – in the subtlety of tiny details.
Here, for me – like Roland Barthe’s punctum – detail can be the thing that pricks. And often such details seem comical, however ‘serious’ the poem’s larger frame. The work can, at times, seem almost cartoon-like in this respect. I think it’s a great strength.
There’s the ‘Highland Cow’ who ‘lifted her lump of a head’. That word ‘lump’ is perfect, of course, literally. But this poem is an anthem to difference: to being ‘in the wrong world, with majesty’. The poet invisibly trawls the useless lump a person who’s ‘different’ can feel, as well as the painfully delicate lumpiness of all that goes on inside that person’s head.
Similarly, towards the end of ‘Tiger, Tiger’, a girl (trapped in a tiger’s body – it’s a long, perfectly-rendered ‘Fairy Tale’) – ‘worked out her poems in her great, beautiful head’. Again, this has extraordinary tenderness, a tenderness only amplified by its context.
‘Drain’ is the most delicious account of having your drains unblocked. Its tiny little reference to ‘this weary house’ – this moment of personification – throws the whole poem, for me, into much greater relief. And finally – because I haven’t room – I have to mention ‘her ladybirds’ in ‘Follower’. I don’t want to spoil the poem. (I don’t want to spoil any of them.) Suffice it to say, a girl sits upon a lap until she feels held, for now, for long enough. Here’s how it ends:
The child and I sit as the afternoon yellows and crumbles,
and she is so patient that I fear for my mind, but at last
she slips down from my lap and goes to find her ladybirds.