Fred Beake: Introduction to `Wounds'

Douglas Clark is a singer in an age of prose poetry. This is not to say that he moves in the meters of traditional song, but there is a sense of a lilt, that is rather like the Gaelic. And indeed, although Clark is as much English as Scottish, and though his sense of the Gaelic tradition probably comes rather more from his wide knowledge of the folk songs than the poetry, there is something very Gaelic about his practice.

     The lot of poets is not
     divorced from others' dispensation:
     fortune was with Duncan Ban
     and William Ross got his fill
     of anguish, of consumption and death.

writes Sorley MacLean of two of his greatest predecessors in the Gaelic tradition. Clark, like William Ross, makes much of his best poetry out of misfortune in love and illness (which in Clark's case has been both physical and mental).

Yet equally in Clark there is a rather gentle humour, which I personally regard as rather English. This comes out perhaps best in the Cat Poems (recently brought together as a pamphlet by the Benjamin Press). We see the world through Clark's cat Fritz' eyes, and though a certain seriousness is present, these poems are very funny.

The present volume unites these two different sensibilities.

The opening half is called `Wounds', and despite the odd moment of comedy (see not least `Coffin') the poems tend to the deeply serious. The opening few poems indeed are a passionate lament for the decline of Empire, and the threatened dissolution of the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Here one must remember Clark's equal roots in England and Scotland.

     The quarters dissassemble
     The Union will break.
     I will be alone.

But equally the lament is for a life of many misfortunes. This rises to real power in `The Ruined Chapel', where the themes of Clark's youth assemble in a poem of great poignancy.

These themes are treated with a certain self-depreciation in `Badon', where a distanced view of the Arthurian world nevertheless becomes a metaphor for Clark's world and ours.

The heart of the first part is, however, the long sequence `Hulagu's Ride'. This sets off Clark's life against one of his great preoccupations -- the history of the Mongols, -- in this case the Mongol incursions into the Middle East around 1260 A.D. It is at first like listening to a Sonata in which the themes are totally unrelated, and one is disconcerted. However, the several readings that a poem of this weight demands reveal something of genuine power, even though that power is hard to elucidate. It may be that the personal history would be too overwhelming without the Mongols, it may be that both subjects are of equal importance to Clark, but to me it works, and is a poem of some importance.

The second part of the book, `The Mary Poems', brings together two distinct elements of Clark's poetic personality, which, on the whole, had not met before. He has always been a muse-centered poet, and he has always had a certain gift for comedy. In the `Mary Poems' he writes almost frivolously of a possible Muse, whom he knows upon the Internet, but has not met. Real happenings drift in and out with events that ought to happen. Clark occasionally tells us his real opinions, but more of the time sends himself up. This half of the book is unmitigated delight.

I would not claim that Douglas Clark is a writer of perfect poems. He does, however, have a style that is unique and a flavour that is his own. Taken as a whole, he is considerable.