The National Poet of Wales since 2008, Gillian Clarke is a writer, lecturer, translator and champion of the Welsh language; in 2010 she received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. Having published ten collections since 1971, Clarke is a prolific poet and a central figure in Welsh literary life.
The snowbound winters of 2009 and 2010 inspire many of the poems in Ice, her latest collection of verse, though the scope of the subject matter is broad. As well as poetic renderings and re-imaginings of the British countryside during those Arctic winters, Ice includes commissioned poetry Clarke composed as National Poet of Wales. With 68 pieces, none longer than a page, this is a collection of highly accessible, yet skilfully crafted poems moving between personal reflection and public commemoration.
Ice opens with “Polar”, a poem about a polar bear skin rug “pegged to the floor by his claws like a shirt on the line”. The polar bear becomes an important motif in the collection, embodying nature and the poet’s relationship with it. Representative of both the beauty and danger of the natural world, the bear is an effective symbol. The speaker wills the bear back to life, “… I want him alive. / I want him fierce/ with belly and breath and growl and beating heart, / I want him dangerous”. Using the reanimated white bear image, Clarke sets off on an imaginative exploration of the inversion of man’s relationship with nature brought on by the snowbound winters.
That juxtaposition of beauty and danger continues throughout Ice. There are violent images of natural wonder, “Darkness/ Dawn a wound in the east” (“Hunting the Wren”); poems which bear witness to the victims of the perilous winter cold – “the tramp they found in a field/ after the thaw// when they lifted him, meltwater/ streamed from his open mouth” (“The Dead After the Thaw”) and Freeze 1947 and Freeze 2010, two elegies to two murdered young girls.
For Clarke, the winters of 2009 and 2010 suggest a longing for the purity and romance of a simpler way of life: life stripped back, a British landscape transformed and simplified into a snowbound hinterland, , “We rise, dress, light fires, carry ha” (“Home for Christmas”). As the cogs of modernity grind to a halt, “motorways muffled in silence, lorries stranded/ like dead birds, airports closed, trains trackless”, nature reasserts itself, “White paws lope the river on plates of ice/ in the city’s bewildered wilderness” (“Snow”). The titular poem, “Ice”, a short but significant piece, seems to sum up Clarke’s own style, “This is the chemistry of ice/ the stitchwork, the embroidery/ the froth and the flummery.// Light joins in. It has a point to make/ about haloes and glories/ spectra and reflection” .
Once described as both concrete and musical, Clarke’s poetry sticks closely to rules and convention whilst also producing some striking verse. She has her craft’s precise chemistry honed and she must be a strong contender for the Eliot Prize. A former Eliot Prize judge herself, if she wins, Clarke may be powerless to deflect the criticism that the prize is a game of musical chairs played by a small set of established poets. This seems unfair. At worst, perhaps, it would be a safe choice, but it would be far from an undeserving one.