Gleeful Savagery in the Clay

Selected Poems
, Jack Clemo, ed. Luke Thompson
(104 pp, £9.99, Enitharmon)

Jack Clemo's status as a poet is rather puzzling. On the one hand, his poems during his lifetime (Clemo died in 1994) were accepted by Cecil Day-Lewis, printed in the acclaimed Penguin Modern Poets series and published by mainstream publishing houses, such as Chatto & Windus and Methuen. On the other, many of his poems first appeared in regional magazines such as The Cornish Review and Dorset Year Book and he was one of the featured poets in the 1995 Stride anthology Completing the Picture, subtitled 'exiles, outsiders and independents'. Is he a 'regional writer' in the same way as, say, Norman Nicholson, published by Faber, was?

This matters only because Clemo is so inextricably linked with the landscape of his early clay poems, set in the ravaged Cornish landscape. This new, well-designed, slim selection edits down his corpus significantly to present the reader with a version majoring on these elements of his work, and whilst it is good to see his awkward, charged poems back in print, I have reservations.

Rowan Williams, in his introduction, highlights the 'gleeful savagery' of Clemo's early work of the 1950s / early 1960s. A poem like 'Clayland Moods' is typical of this, 'the Olympian thunder…of all God's moods', a 'darker power' which relishes bloodshed as a necessary consequence of 'primal guilt'. Williams is right, also, to state that whilst Clemo is explicitly a Christian writer, there is an egoistic arrogance that disfigures some of his work: the poem quoted ends, 'Then I begin to know/ why I am tested so'. Clemo's physical handicaps – he was deaf and lost his sight in the mid-1950s – perhaps begins to explain this strange clarity.

What remains undeniable is the power and unique vision of landscape in some of these early works. 'The Flooded Clay-Pit', for instance, paints a picture of poisoned pastoral like no other writer:

               What scenes far
      Beneath those waters: chimney-pots
      That used to smoke; brown rusty clots
                Of wheels still oozing tar;
                Lodge doors that rot ajar.'

This insistence on grotesque underwater specificity is almost Hardy-like at times, and it is a pity that room could not have been found for 'Max Gate', from Frontier Signals
(1961). This is an important meeting:  'you missed redemption's paradox' the visiting Clemo states to the shade of the older writer, concluding that 'to blaspheme with tears is to believe'.

In terms of his religion, Clemo is closer to R.S.Thomas than C.S.Lewis, with the important exception of his confident search for redemption. Clemo's heart must be 'rendered fit/ by violent mouldings through the tunnelled ways' ('Christ in the Clay-Pit'). Later in his writing life, this redemption came through Clemo's marriage and poems like 'Affirmative Way', from the 1975 collection Broad Autumn
, are written in a quieter, less insistent tone and are more effective for it.

In his final collections, Approach to Murano
and The Cured Arno, published by Bloodaxe in 1993 and 1995 respectively, Clemo writes in this more muted, subdued tone, without losing his grasp of violent images: 'Moor Hunt', included here, still includes the vampiric image of a dredger and a violent fox-hunt, but his identification with the fox gains from this.

This collection may reintroduce Clemo's 'uncomfortable' poetic voice to those who have not yet encountered  him, as Williams hopes in his introduction. For a truly comprehensive overview, however, room could have been found for some of his other moods: the meditations on Alfred Wallis, the Cornish painter, or Blake noting a demonstration on Hampstead Heath  (both from The Echoing Tip, 1991). Some of these pieces do much to humanise the rather detached, alienated tones evident in much of Clemo's work.

     © M.C. Caseley 2015