Polly Clark was born in Toronto, Canada and brought up in Britain. She has published three poetry collections with Bloodaxe: Kiss (2000), Take Me With You (2005) and Farewell My Lovely (2009). Kiss was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, whereas Take Me With You was a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. In 1997, Clark won an Eric Gregory Award, and in 2004 the UK creative writing magazine Mslexia selected her as one of the ten best poets to emerge in the last decade. Her poems have been widely published in journals and newspapers and have been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and 4. Clark has also published short stories and currently produces the Literature Programme for Cove Park, Scotland’s International Artist Residency Centre, where she mentors new writers.
Clark has described her employment history as “chequered” and her various occupations have included working as an English teacher in Hungary, in publishing and as a zookeeper. The influence of Clark’s stint as a zookeeper can be seen in her many poems with animal themes. In these Clark often paces and transgresses the border between animal and human. Animals, according to U.A. Fanthorpe, “inform her presentation of human experience, from birth to death, from ecstasy to profound grief.” ‘Elvis the Octopus’ (Take Me With You), who “hangs in the tank like a ruined balloon”, is distinctly human in his successful suicide, whereas the female narrator in ‘My Life with Horses’ (Kiss) strays in the other direction; in acting the role of a woman she feels she is “trying to hide the animal I am”:
Now in the evening I put on my dress
like a secret; will you see
how my elbow pokes like a hock,
the way I have carefully cut my mane,
the way my eyes roll from fear of you?
Clark’s field of reference is refreshingly broad and her poems proliferate with differing narrative voices, from the young paratrooper fighting in the Falklands, to new mothers, lovers, animals, adulterers and Sigmund Freud’s famous patient ‘Dora’. Human relationships, and in particular their traditional expression in the role of marriage, form an important component of Clark’s poetic work. With a rare clarity, she holds a magnifying glass to the institution of marriage, and investigates the many shifting aspects of relationships between people.
In Farewell My Lovely Clark ends with a sequence of poems written as ‘A Falklands Memoir’, in which a 17-year old paratrooper narrates his experience of the conflict. In the collection Clark ties the concept of military conflict to the notion of marriage and motherhood. She has said of the collection:
The book is an imaginative response to two areas of particular interest to me. One is the idea of war destroying and remaking a person, should you survive it, and in the book I suggest some metaphorical parallels between a military war on the body and identity of a young man and the different, silent, unspoken assaults on the identity and body of a woman provoked by the institutions of marriage and motherhood.
Clark draws attention to the physical signifiers of different social identities and, like wearing a wedding ring, putting on a soldier’s uniform implies the necessity of adopting a new identity which may conflict with your own. Like the “Para’s” uniform in ‘Not a Crap Hat’ (Farewell My Lovely):
and though these things are true
and I don’t want to die here
this is what the Paras do
and I’m on the winning side here
and I wear my red beret
and I wear my Para wings
and you bet that come what may
I am the master of these things.
In ‘Marriage’ (Farewell My Lovely) the narrator is uncomfortable with her new role as a wife, and the effect it has on her life: “I got married and everything was different./ It seemed impolite to leave, so I didn’t.” In ‘Bride’ (Take Me With You) the notion of marriage as ownership is explored, but in spite of the negative connotations of the term, the reader is left confused by the more positive tone of the poem’s closing stanza: “This is what it is to be owned:/ I leave the shore where I paced my life./ There’s a raft now, and every time I add a rock/ to my strange map, there is a hand on mine.” Ultimately, the question of what being with another person means, and the effect this has on our own identities, is left open.
Clark also humorously plays with relationship expectations, as in the tongue-in-cheek ‘Baize’ (Take Me With You), which features the iconic snooker hero, Steve Davis:
I should have tried harder
to love Steve Davis.
If not for his neat bow tie
then for his rare motor skills.
Good hand-eye co-ordination
smooths the path of a relationship.
Clark’s metre is often taut and spare, her words carefully weighted to the extent that she withholds information from the reader, creating poems that are “appealingly mysterious” (Sean O’Brien, Sunday Times). In the enigmatic ‘Bay Tree’ (Farewell My Lovely) it is not clear what wicked act the narrator has committed to receive “a bay tree that flickers with finches” instead of God’s forgiveness, but this forms part of the poem’s allure: “I longed to be forgiven./ God said, how can you be?/ For you know what you do”. In the words of W.N. Herbert, “Clark has mastered the necessary art of saying two things at once. The surface maintains a bright, even brisk tone; it’s full of fresh, unexpected phrasings. And yet the imagery points to a darker underbelly.”
Kiss, Bloodaxe, Newcastle, 2000
Take Me With You, Bloodaxe, Tarset, 2005
Farewell My Lovely, Bloodaxe, Tarset, 2009
Visit Clark’s website
Clark’s poetry is published by Bloodaxe
Read an interview with Clark by the Scottish Book Trust here
Listen to Clark reading her poems on the Poetry Archive