New Voices Press, 2011 £5.99
Reviewed by Jake Campbell, Matt Merritt and Fiona Sinclair
As the opening to a collection, ‘The Anatomists’ is at once a stunning and flawed overview of A.C Clarke’s aims. Written as four sestets, I can understand the poet’s desire to retain uniformity, given the subject matter (specimens in The Museum of Anatomy at the University of Glasgow), but I wish she’d had a little more faith in allowing the poem to breathe. The excellently-crafted and rather spooky lines “Imagine their patience/ the deftness with which they’d ease a kidney/ free of its moorings, scoop a brain out of its shell”, should, I believe, have been placed at the forefront of this poem. Instead, we see trophy cases lining “the walls/ of the medical school”—a somewhat more banal introduction. Nevertheless, we hope to learn the “curious pathology of the heart” through poems which are most successful when they really focus in on curious details: “the sell-by-date/ centuries off” (‘Upper Gallery, Anatomy Museum 1’); “the quirk of/ your hobgoblin mouth” (‘Cyclops’).
A Natural Curiosity is, I’m pleased to say, not entirely focused on museum inventory. In ‘Expectations’, my favourite, Clarke shows us how science can destroy as easily as it can preserve; how “For/ sure there’s more meanings than one.” The combination of immediacy and attention to detail is what makes this poem particularly striking: I could envisage the woman as she “hurries on her goloshes”; “Her/ fingers fumble the clasp of the /reticule”. The mania of the narrator’s intentions warrants these neat, short line breaks, and again those details—the “goloshes”, the “three deep breaths”—force the poem to become something far more profound than a sum of its parts.
At times I felt Clarke was writing on autopilot: ‘Honeymooner’s Heart’, which was always going to be a tricky subject to broach, slips into cliché with “his pulse was racing”. I wondered, given the originality of Clarke’s gaze elsewhere in the collection, whether this poem would have been more interesting if written from the perspective of the physical, not metaphorical, honeymooners’ hearts. Still, this is really a minor gripe in a sharply-observed collection that provided a fundamental prerequisite of what I look for in poetry: a reconsideration of the importance of apparently worthless objects.
A C Clarke is one of those names that you're used to seeing in poetry magazines and lists of competition winners—reliably high-quality, yet never especially concerned with following poetic fashion.
So, although in the past I've probably only read individual poems by her in isolation, it should have come as no surprise that she maintains her usual high standards across this imaginative, impressively sustained sequence inspired by the Museum of Anatomy at the University of Glasgow.
If she's at her weakest (or at rather most forgettable) when she falls back on relatively straightforward description, her greatest strength, displayed again and again, is her willingness to deploy real feeling in her verse—no coolly ironic detachment here—and to do so skilfully enough that it never tips over into the sentimental.
Nowhere is this better displayed than when she writes of the babies—premature, stillborn or suffering from one or other mutation—on display. So, the whole of Misbirths In Bottles is:
One would be enough
to make the point, whatever
the point is. Two, three—
beyond sanctioned enquiry.
The style throughout is plain, pared-down, journalistic, even. Not only does that help the reader take in the sheer strangeness of the exhibits being described, it also throws Clarke's subtle, perfectly deployed musings about the less tangible aspects of what's being seen into sharp relief.
Missing moves from a description of the miracle of the human body ("Devices for every function/ plumbing more intricate/ than a boiler-room,/ electric circuits faster/ than a PC") to consideration of what actually makes us human:
Nowhere among these bottled wonders,
not even in the softroe folds of the brain,
a thought winged mid-flight
in all its fiery plumage.
It's a compassionate, moving collection, and a perfect example of how to condense a great deal into a chapbook-length sequence.
I must confess I find most museums boring. I certainly would have avoided the Anatomy Museum at the University of Glasgow, dismissing it as only of interest to medics. However, in her pamphlet A Natural Curiosity, A C Clarke has translated the museum into something extraordinary.
The poet has clearly often studied the exhibits carefully, and she uses the brief labels as a starting point for her narrative. In ‘Expectations’ she describes the suicide of a pregnant young woman. The vignette employs emotive images (“it strikes cold to her stomach’’, ‘‘her face is streaked with water’’, ‘‘she hadn’t expected it would be so painful or last so long’’) to bring home to the reader the human story behind the exhibit. In fact, several of the specimens described are the stomachs of suicides, reminding the reader that such victims could, in effect, no longer stomach life.
‘Last Exhibits’ more explicitly deals with the idea of seeing beyond the specimens to the humanity that links us all. Here the persona regards a number of bodies that have been dissected. Rather than rendering them less human, the character sees “a mirror image” of ourselves. As the bodies are stripped of their physical garments, she imagines them “in crinoline or frock coat’’. To emphasise the cadavers’ humanity still further, the poem ends with the remarkable desire of the speaker to “extend my hand to yours though between us is glass’’.
But it is in the sequence of poems about babies, judiciously placed together, that the poet’s skilful use of language is best exemplified. The specimens are effectively freaks of nature, yet Clarke avoids mawkishness. Instead, there is tenderness, especially in ‘Double Take’ where the deformation is of hands with 6 digits. Here the poet imagines the baby
waiting for the mother
to clasp all six tight in her own.
Hush now she says, it’s alright.
In ‘Cyclops’ she uses language of fairy tale and magic (‘‘hung in this jar like a jack o lantern’’, ‘’your hobgoblin mouth”) to transform the baby’s malformation into something wonderful:
you are so other
and so human.
‘Three of a kind’ has the poet employing whimsy when describing three babies as “three in a row, in a dance routine”. She then moves the description away from this conceit to the sober end line that describes the infants “singing a tune which is never going to change”, leaving the reader with an uncomfortable sense of being doomed to a kind of limbo or stasis as museum exhibits.
This collection manages to make a somewhat specialised museum relevant to us all. Far from gruesome, these anatomical specimens are given narratives that remind us of our common humanity.