Harvest Clarke's BABA joins three new titles - by Richard Barrett, David
Berridge and Chris Stephenson - in the Blart Books imprint she co-edits with
Stephen Emmerson. In an elegant pocket format, the cover offers an image of a
bleak mountainous landscape in muted tones with the small figure of a woman
in brightly-coloured clothes almost hidden in the bottom left-hand corner of
the back cover. Whilst it's tempting to read this image as a treated
photograph from the author's own album, at the very least it announces some
of the concerns of the sequence in terms of its exploration of women's
identity and its relationship to the world and to ideas of nature. More than this
even, as the title suggests, BABA is also an exploration of the impact
of motherhood on the author, and in this way, finds itself in the company of
recent entries in this genre by experimental women poets such as Andrea
Brady's Mutability: Scripts for Infancy (2013) and Catherine Wagner's Macular
(2004) and Wagner's edited collection (with Rebecca Wolff and Alice
Ostriker), Not for Mothers Only (2007).
This observed, my concern here is less with examining how Harvest Clarke's
work engages with this tradition, but to try and give an account of how it
feels to read these remarkable poems. BABA is a sequence
of eighty-one nine-line poems
organised into nine sequences of nine poems each and this formalism puts it
in the company of writers associated with the London scene of the eighties
and nineties such as Robert Sheppard and Adrian Clarke, or with the more
recent 'ninerrors' project of SL Mendoza. Harvest Clarke invests tension into
her compact form with short phrasal lines each ending with a full-stop. Here
is a complete poem from the fifth section: 'BABA comes home':
You are en vitae.
Articles our orphan.
Ice blocks for a
Keep your tiger at your
And your craft in your
Keep your beads in your
Out of reach of the
For example night.
Watches are over your
Harvest Clarke achieves a distinctive, supple movement in these lines (and
throughout) in the counterpoint between the variety of syntactic gestures and
the patterns of repetition - whether they be lexical, syntactical, full- or
eye-rhyme. The use of enjambment across the full-stopped line break in
'night. / Watches' is another key device, as are unexpected turns of phrase
like 'watches are over your garden' rather than 'watches over'. The
effect of this technical approach is to create a gently ironising tone that
at the same time makes these utterances feel almost unbearably contingent and
vulnerable. Whilst the play between continuity and discontinuity approaches
the virtuosity of Raworth's Eternal Sections, nevertheless
these poems negotiate their subject matter with commitment. Domestic spaces
and natural settings become the stages for tense stand offs with self and
otherness as a new world is renegotiated through language:
Here we let loose.
Lay eggs and write.
Here we stop and stand
Stop it shrink from the
Self exposure the sacred
Stop seer fascinus.
Stand still from
In many places one feels that what is at stake is nothing short of the poet's
continued survival as an independent entity:
You put your whole self
You take your whole self
Glistening in the
All desire for company.
Abandoned with alcohol.
Throughout the sequence 'Baba' as child is identified and qualified in
various complex ways: 'Bed side of universe Baba is'; 'Baby steps Baba';
'Baba plays spot the difference'; 'Baba still back at the BBQ'; 'Your blood
Baba. / My fame'; 'Baba is in the time'; 'The heart cave Baba' and so on, at
one point even becoming the Baba Yaga of Slavic
folklore: 'Ya Baba yagged too soon' (p. 48). This almost cipher-like handling
of Baba transcends an address to any unique individual and enables the poet
to explore her experience on a wider stage, whereon the dramas of sex,
relationships, drugs, art, politics and religion are all re-visioned through
the lens of parenthood. This project is not without its risks, and if the
poet recognises these: 'Retracting imagination. / Reality don't care about
nothing' (p. 72), she also recognises the degree to which language is the
means to mitigate and experience this risk safely: 'the language of this
reality shows' (p. 39).
There is much else to admire in this work which is deeply engaged in poetic
tradition at the same time as it radically reinvents it; offering a precise,
completely integrated diction that is expressive without becoming sentimental
or egotistical, and intelligently discriminating without becoming abstract.
Harvest Clarke's achievement here certainly puts her in the top flight of
lyric poets working in the UK today, and her work deserves the widest
Scott Thurston 2014