“The caged sea flows on”

Ghost Pot, John Wedgwood Clarke, Valley Press, £8.99
reviewed by Fiona Moore

ghost pot clarke

The pot of the title poem, first in the book, is a lobster pot whose loss in the sea causes an destructive chain reaction: “The bait will make bait/ of its catch”.

                              The caged sea
flows on as they eat from answer
to question, unpacking their hunger,
one to another, until up it comes, a by-catch,
crammed to the throat with bony shields.

The sonnet’s as thickly woven as the gruesome trap and draws energy from tight syntax, half rhymes half-heard through enjambment, and chewy, unLatinate words. The next seven poems are sonnets too, sharing these characteristics and the North Yorkshire coastal theme: a sequence, though each does something different. If ‘Ghost Pot’ presents a startling image, ‘Limpet’ is a conceit or metaphor of sorts, and other poems range from straight description or family outing to mood poem, as in ‘Black Dog Whelk Feeds on a Barnacle’:

Black Dog Whelk listens through itself
and every move I fail to make,
aches and drills and knows it’s only time
before it thins the dark, a stony light
about to break between table, cup and tap.

Individual poems don’t take an obvious course either – it’s rare to have a sense of where one might go. The jaw-aching language bounces from one set of consonants to the next, barely a human construct but as tangible as the landscapes and objects it describes. Entry to a poem is often slant so that the reader is interestingly disoriented… and then disoriented again when one (e.g. ‘Bait Shed’; the titles are a help) starts with a straightforward description. The oddity of ‘Black Nab’ is typical:

Someone burnt the telephone directory,
cast it in stone: Black Nab is a stub
of illegible numbers and lost addresses.

The stubby rhyme of -ab, -ub and -umb is offset by -phone and stone, and tele-, illegi- and –esses. Humour lurks in such images – a tent in ‘Wild Camping’ is like a mermaid’s purse, a crab in ‘Sandside’ “plays arpeggios on the mud piano,/ his touch like someone picking stitches”. Quoted out of context these might seem arch, but their accuracy and the terse, dense language prevent that. A couple of conceit poems do risk archness, including ‘Kettleness’ whose nursery-rhyme beginning, “I had a little egg timer, nothing would it bear” somehow jars among the ruggedness.

The coast is presented as both timeless and derelict. The environmental impact of “everlasting plastics”, “a tombstone fish box” or the ghost pot itself is rarely that explicit, rather in the background as a shared assumption between writer and reader. People and their moods become an extension of landscape: in ‘Robin Hood’s Bay’, children have “ribs, like hidden gills, slippery under skin”. There’s occasional human comedy, e.g. in ‘Wild Camping’:

He wakes inside, a fading print of himself.
He’s forgotten how to look at her
and looks to make sure she’s there.
But she’s gone, zipping him in,
too hot, shivering him away
in a skitter of cold stones down her spine

Categories in Ghost Pot are as unpredictable as the rest: things that are animal /vegetable /mineral /metaphysical or man-made /natural get described in terms of each other, their boundaries (and those of the senses) surreally mixed up. ‘Marsh Marigold’ begins:

I listened in to light
and heard its yellow hum:
a tuning fork just struck
and planted on my temple.

It was cold and clear as water
dripping from a glacier,
poised as a hare
a blink away from woods.

Nothing could follow on,
not I, not tomorrow nor
next spring. It paused the air
and screwed it tight as stone.

These simple, short verses allow multiple images to stand clear. Anyone reading many denser poems in one sitting might find that the successions of images start to cancel each other out… but who except a reviewer would do that?

Most poems are underlain by iambic pentameter, sometimes faint, other times nearer the surface as in the Black Dog Whelk poem quoted above; and not necessarily going with the line breaks which tend to be spot on. Similarly end rhyme, often half rhyme, comes and goes, not in expected patterns, supplemented by internal rhyme.

The book is beautifully designed and produced, its dimensions making it feel more like a (fat) pamphlet than the full collection it is: like the poems, shortish and packed full of stuff often as strange as the ghost pot, a tribute to the coastscape they celebrate.

Fiona Moore

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