Written by Hazel Burke

Arts

Could Be Verse

Fancy getting stuck into a sonnet or cosy with a canzone but no idea where to start? Our poetry *doctor (*she’s not a real doctor) Hazel Burke spends a sordid Sunday afternoon with the work of Clare Pollard.

Emily Dickinson illustration by Louise Boulter.

Emily Dickinson illustration by Louise Boulter.

Thirtieth
by Clare Pollard

Sandy Denny’s singing: who knows where the time goes?
and it isn’t us, still partying on a Sunday afternoon,
slumped on a garden patio beneath a greasy sun,
after a night of pale, crooked lines;
after improvised cocktails of gin and raspberry vodka.
“She died at thirty one”, someone says, plucking
an olive from an ashy slick.
“Fell down the stairs.”
And I’m aware I’m wearing grim, glittery rags; yesterday’s knickers.
My back to honeysuckled brick, I flick tongue over gums
that taste like a gun in the mouth.
A mobile flashes MUM. No one picks up.
We know how mothers fret over the ticking clocks:
our one-bed flats,
our ovaries.
Instead we fill our plastics up with cider,
and watch wasps as they circle spikes of lavender;
the big sky’s cirrus scraps –
a Brimstone butterfly flaps, then settles
on a blackened bone.
My friends, we are so lucky and disgusting,
and will pay for this tomorrow.

Strip the people out of Thirtieth and it’s an idyllic sunny Sunday afternoon, with insects buzzing around the honeysuckle and lavender, and even a bright yellow butterfly fluttering through the lines. Sun, sky, clouds, flowers, butterfly. Nice, safe poetical territory.

Add the people back in, though, and the poem takes on a slightly unsavoury element of excess. The clothes that were fine last night are now ‘grim, glittery rags’ and mouths that once tasted fresh now taste ‘like a gun in the mouth’. It also features that special still-wearing-yesterday’s-knickers feeling, drinking cider out of plastic cups and ignoring your mum’s call: all things that I’m fairly sure haven’t made it into any other poem I’ve ever read.

What’s going on here? Hasn’t Clare Pollard read the Poetry Rulebook? What is she doing leaving yesterday’s knickers in the middle of a nice poem? In fact, it’s pretty clear that Pollard knows the rules, she’s just flicking the Vs at them in the same way that the partygoers aren’t quite doing what’s expected of them by their mums.

All these unexpected-in-a-poem images are little bit gross at the same time as being massively mundane, which makes them easy to identify with. I haven’t done much wandering lonely as a cloud, so when I read it in a poem I need to put a bit of effort into interpreting quite what it means.

“I’m a bit fascinated myself about why it feels important to do the ‘right’ things in each decade or to do certain things before you’re 30, or to change how you behave as midnight strikes on your 30th birthday.”

I have, however, sat around wearing last night’s clothes, trying to chase a hangover away by carrying on drinking. So I have my own memory of how this feels, which gives an extra dimension of everyday reality to the poem for me. (It’s not just me, is it? Be honest.)

So I find this an utterly convincing picture of one particular Sunday afternoon, but it’s also a symbol of teetering on the wrong side of the cusp between the carefree weekends of your 20s and the looming responsibilities of your 30s. There’s something about the way that the voice in the poem describes the group of friends as ‘so lucky, and so disgusting’ that gives me the sense they know weekends like this are a luxury that won’t go on for ever.

I’m a bit fascinated myself about why it feels important to do the ‘right’ things in each decade or to do certain things before you’re 30, or to change how you behave as midnight strikes on your 30th birthday. (Answers on a postcard please if anybody knows the answer to all of this.) Whatever the reason is for this, it IS a big deal and Pollard captures this sense of a time of life and the passing of time beautifully.

Anybody who namechecks Sandy Denny is alright by me, but of course the ‘who knows where the time goes?’ lyric is a perfect soundtrack for this poem, as well as adding several layers of tragic irony to it, with Denny’s untimely death and the flippant remark from one of the partygoers: “She died at thirty one…. Fell down the stairs”, which conveniently leaves out the complicating factors of drink, drugs and other troubles from the micro-biography.

For the rest of us, time passes, sometimes more poetically than others. In Thirtieth Clare Pollard injects a bit of everydayness into her poem and finds a bit of poetry in the everyday in return.

Thirtieth appears in Changeling by Clare Pollard (Bloodaxe Books, 2011).
To order a copy for £9.95 with free UK p&p go to: www.bloodaxebooks.com/ecs/product/changeling-1006

@oxpecking

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Written by Hazel Burke

Hazel likes seed catalogues, maps and toast. She lives in Manchester. @oxpecking