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'The River' by Jane Clarke - a poetry launch with Moya Cannon


Moya Cannon launched Jane Clarke's wonderful new poetry collection 'into the waters of Galway' tonight at Charlie Byrne's bookshop and it was a lovely occasion. Wonderful to see these two Irish women of poetry work together and complement each other so well. Moya is launching her 5th collection 'Keats Lives' at the Clifden Arts Festival next month, but tonight she was generously supporting Jane's first collection 'The River'. 

Her praise began with confirmation that this collection clearly displays the qualities of well written poetry - as defined by Denise Levertov: a poem should be direct, hard, sound and most importantly have an air of mystery. In a meta reference to Levertov's 'Illustrious Ancestors' she explained further, a poem should be: 
'direct as what the birds said, 
hard as a floor, 
sound as a bench, 
mysterious as the silence when the tailor 
would pause with his needle in the air' 
'The River' doesn't feel like a first poetry collection, she said - so well does it meet these criteria. It also shows remarkable containment and restraint - which just like a river - is where a poem finds it true power. The words calm our spirit, and yet they hold immense emotional cargo. Here she cited 'The Suitcase' and noted the tender treatment of the pain of mother and children in a seemingly unhappy marriage:
As a child I didn’t understand
that despair was a neighbour
of love and if you were lucky
it stayed beyond the garden gate,
just visiting from time to time
to borrow sugar, test faith.
As a child I didn’t understand
that when my mother showed me
the nightie, toothbrush, nylons,
miniature bible and summer dress
she kept packed in the suitcase
under their bed, it was herself
she was telling, I can go, if I want to.
Sometimes I checked
had she emptied it yet, sometimes
I wanted to shout, go if you’re going,
why wait? I didn’t understand
it was the suitcase that helped her to stay.
Moya noted that some of these poems bring us back to a landscape and timescape of the past - with references to 'blue enamel basins' and the stock and trade of farm implements and skills long-forgotten all over Ireland - as she read 'Dusk'. This was a time when 'hearts were not worn on sleeves' - but that underlying emotions were maybe all the stronger because of that. She said 'The River' had some immensely tender poems - noting that one of the things we look for in poetry is heartbreak. Here 'Among the Cows' was singled out for attention and in particular the lines:
When her mother died
her father wore his grief
the way he wore his Sunday suit,
as if it belonged to someone else
Cannon also noted that poetry has an unparalleled power to entertain contradiction and 'The River' is full of poems that balance all manner of contradiction in everyday life - including the energies of eros. After these strong words of praise, she handed us over to Jane to read from her collection and we were treated to heartfelt renditions of 'Daily Bread'; 'Dry Stone Wall' for which she thanked her parents for the primary data gathered at the kitchen table; 'For Isobel' an appreciation of the in-laws she never knew which drew warm murmurs of appreciation from family in the audience; 'On the Boat' which was partly inspired by a visit to the New York Tenement Museum. Jane closed her reading with 'The River' - this is the poem that titles the collection and the one that takes your breath away the first time you hear it. Clearly a firm favourite with all in attendance. 
Thank you, Jane Clarke and thank you, Moya Cannon for a wonderful evening of poetry.
Levertov, Denise. (1958). 'Illustrious Ancestors' retrieved 14th Aug 2015 from



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