Fancy getting stuck into a sonnet or cosy with a canzone but no idea where to start? Emotions are disturbingly fashionable these days, writes our poetry doctor* Hazel Burke. Thank goodness for subtle gaps. *She’s not a real doctor.
Back of an envelope
by Jane Clarke
I don’t know what’s come over your father,
my mother says on the phone. He left
a note on the back of an envelope –
gone herding, won’t be long.
Where did he think I’d think he was gone?
All those years if I asked where he was going,
where he had been, he’d act like I’d tethered him
to a post, and then today he leaves a note.
Taken from Jane Clarke, The River (Bloodaxe Books, 2015).
This is a little beauty of a poem. It captures one of those little fragments of a life that seem insignificant at the time, but resonate with meaning in hindsight.
So at first glance this is a poem about a little note and a very everyday-ish phone conversation – you can hear the mother’s voice in your head as you read the poem.
Of course, it’s not an everyday conversation. Jane Clarke keeps the everyday language, but crafts it into a poem hardly longer than the note the father left, and puts it on the page for us. This clues us into the significance of the moment: we linger over it.
While the mother says she doesn’t know what’s come over her husband, we readers do know (or can have a good guess). Maybe the husband wrote the note because on some level he feels a less invincible future looming. Maybe he knows his wife worries now if he’s late.
So the note ‘gone herding, won’t be long’ stands in for a much longer message which it seems possible will never be written. Something along the lines of the father realising that he no longer has the strength of his animals and will not always come back from herding, or that he realises that his wife worries that he isn’t as strong as he has always been.
It’s one of those moments that you look back on to pinpoint how a person or a relationship changes. By this point, their relationship has already changed, just as it will change more in the future beyond the phone call.
Emotions are disturbingly fashionable these days, but this is not a gushy family and this is not a gushy poem. The emotions are there, they just aren’t splashed all over the page. Clarke leaves gaps in the poem: there’s the chasm between the words and the meaning of the note, and the uncertainty over how the husband and wife have read the wider situation.
“This is a little beauty of a poem. It captures one of those little fragments of a life that seem insignificant at the time, but resonate with meaning in hindsight.”
I love this poem especially because I’ve got one of these back-of-an-envelope notes. My grandad wrote it for me when I was living with him in my early 20s. He was a beekeeper, not a farmer. So my note says, “Down the garden. Doing beekeeping.” It’s written in his decorous copperplate, probably the only fancy thing about him.
I remember I found it funny at the time: he never left normally left notes for me and he wouldn’t be anywhere else than checking on the hives on a sweet summer evening. I teased him about it when he came back in, and he pretended to box me in return. I joked about it with my mum and dad on the phone, kept the note, and didn’t think much more about it.
That was a good while ago. I’ve still got the note, but my grandad’s gone. So I’ve got a particular soft spot for this poem. It takes something tiny: a little scrap of paper, a snippet of a phone call, and quietly – without making fuss – makes whole lives out of it.
Thanks to Bloodaxe Books for letting us reprint this poem.
Read all of Hazel’s previous poetry columns here.
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Hazel likes seed catalogues, maps and toast. She lives in Manchester. @oxpecking