When the Tree Falls by Jane Clarke (Bloodaxe Books, 2019)
I first came across the work of Irish poet Jane Clarke in October of last year, when her poem ‘When Winter Comes’ was published as The Guardian’s poem of the week. On the strength of this encounter I ordered a copy of her second collection, When the Tree Falls, and this slim volume quickly became a poetry highlight of my summer; I was not surprised to hear that this accomplished collection has been shortlisted for this year’s Irish Times Poetry Award. This is one of those books that I want to press upon all my friends, but also really don’t want to allow out of the house for fear it will not return.
This is a collection with family at its heart, with much of the book devoted to a sequence of poems about the final illness and death of the poet’s father. These poems are lyrically deft, poignant, moving, but also pragmatic in their depictions of decline and loss, and of the ways in which the speaker, her father, and other family members deal from day to day with the situation they find themselves in. The father is a farmer, and this is a family deeply rooted in the land, with the poems often set in or referencing locations around the farm. As a dyed-in-the-wool city dweller I sometimes struggle to engage with poetry that has a rural setting but in this collection the farm landscape feels like another character, moving through time alongside the family.
Other poems extend into the poet’s family history – her relationships with her parents and her brothers – and some of my favourite poems are these clear-eyed observations of situations and interactions. Grandparents and other ancestors also feature and yet, although the collection is clearly deeply personal, it succeeds in feeling universal. As Clarke writes in ‘Polling Station’: “every family has stories, left like ploughs / and harrows among thistles behind the sheds.” There are lines that blend quiet strength with sorrow, as in the opening of ‘Ryegrass’, the first poem in the book: “his time is precious as a dry spell / when there’s silage to be cut”, poems where the characters who populate the book are given vivid voice and form, as in ‘Cypress’:
he suddenly struggles
to sit up.
Will you open the curtains
so we’ll see the dawn when it comes?
He gazes out
at the cypress
that in his lifetime
grew higher than the house.
In others, the poet effectively sketches remembered scenes in the space of a few lines, as in “Camping at Bearna”:
The groundsheet rips, the milk
turns sour, someone drops the eggs
and more often than not
we wake to the pock, pock, pock
Other poems are devoted to Clarke’s friend and fellow poet Shirley McClure, who died in 2016. One of these, “Metastasis”, employs “the way couch grass takes hold of a garden” as a metaphor for the insidious nature of cancer spreading in the body, the lines “slips silent under fences, colonises beds / and gets itself entangled through agapanthus” sending a chill of recognition and dread down my spine.
In this eloquent, reflective collection, Clarke wields language with enviable delicacy and a quiet intelligence, creating an immensely satisfying and ultimately uplifting book, one that tackles loss by celebrating love, that acknowledges pain and fear, but also points to the difference compassion and care for one another can make to the close of a good life.
Claire Orchard lives in Wellington and is the author of poetry collection Cold Water Cure (VUP, 2016). You can find out more about her at her website
Jane Clarke grew up on a farm in Co. Roscommon and now lives with her partner in Glenmalure in Co. Wicklow. Her first collection, The River, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2015. Her second collection, When the Tree Falls, was published by Bloodaxe Books in September 2019. All the Way Home, an illustrated sequence of poems in response to a soldier’s letters from the Front during World War 1, was published by Smith|Doorstop in April 2019, in collaboration with the Mary Evans Picture Library, London.
Full biography at Jane Clarke’s website
Bloodaxe Books author page