Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
6:20 PM 12th October 2021

Poem Of The Week: 'That I Could' By Jane Clarke

That I could

That I could take away from him
these long days in the hospital,

the digging for a vein in his arm,
the drip that stops him sleeping,

the pain that makes him whisper,
Jesus Christ, oh, Jesus Christ.

That I could take him back
to his cobblestones and barn,

his rooks in the birch trees, his nettles
and ditches, limestone and bog.

That I could find the words to tell him
what he will always be,

horse chestnut petals falling pink in the yard,
the well hidden in a blackthorn thicket,

a summer evening’s hush,
cattle standing orange in the shallows.

Jane Clarke
Jane Clarke
The collection from which this poem is taken - When the Tree Falls - is so exposed and painful that it is hard not to feel like an intruder on personal grief. A truly remarkable poem in a book of tendersweet elegies, ‘That I Could’ whispers to the root of emotional connection, and finds an echo deep in the pastures of Roscommon.

Jane Clarke is the daughter of an Irish farmer and her hinterland is a landscape whose familiarity encourages a feeling for the symbiotic, and for the indivisibility of nature and familial bonding. Conceived in a retrospective present, the agony of her father’s illness is rehearsed in harrowing detail. The scrabbling for a vein in a withered arm, the soreness of a drip, and the sotto voce ‘Jesus Christ’ of the third couplet are rendered with utter, bewildered conviction, and are met with an address that is both desperate, and consolatory.

Looking outwards to the fields of memory, Clarke wishes peace on her father. Not a word too few or too many dignify the endeavour; nothing is left hanging or given to chance. And in a moment of extreme focus, she sees his world through her father’s own eyes, fusing man and terrain in one unbreakable unity of meaning, and conferring a kind of grace on a life well lived.

The languid sibilance of the final couplet, whose pace demands contemplation, is humbling in its sonorous keening beauty.

‘That I could’ is taken from When the Tree Falls (Bloodaxe Books, 2019), and is reproduced here by kind permission of the publisher.