Geraldine Clarkson introduces her new collection
When in the last two months before publication of my first full poetry collection, Monica’s Overcoat of Flesh — the progress of which had been variously plagued by bereavements, the loss of a home, and complicated publishing scenarios — the final compiling and proofreading stage coincided with an actual plague, the whole idea of producing a poetry book seemed suspect. Commas and line breaks seemed a ludicrous thing to be attending to. And yet, it’s what poets do. There's a story of a holy man being asked, while sweeping the floor, what he’d do if he knew the world was about to end, and he replied that he’d carry on sweeping the floor.
Maybe the blocks and complications were somehow needed for the book’s evolution, and certainly the final timing has resulted in a bizarre kind of call and response between some of the themes — the altered reality and lockdown-esque nature of monastic enclosure — and the ongoing pandemic situation. In any case, I feel relieved and grateful to have the book finally out of my head, and hair, and into the world...
The poem ‘Homily of Francis’ is written in the voice of St Francis of Assisi, who I like to think of as an early eco-poet: closely attuned to the environment, composing praise poems — canticles — to earth, water, moon, sun, wind, and fire (his ‘mother’ and ‘sisters’ and ‘brothers’). Legends have him talking to wolves and birds and fishes...
The poem’s title also gives a nod to my parents (to whom the book is co-dedicated) as both of them had the first name Francis/es — though my Dad was usually ‘Frank’. (The book’s next poem has the word ‘Frank’ placed strategically, in his honour.) Mum and Dad were both ordinary yet extraordinary people, early school-leavers, working-class and resourceful, bringing up 10 of us in a Midlands council house. This household population was further augmented by Irish cousins whom Mum and Dad used to put up when they came over to work on the buses/do nursing training. Dad supported us by working in factories, and as a taxi driver, security guard, builder and barber. Mum also had up to 4 jobs at a time (cleaner, dinner lady, domestic help, carer), as well as keeping house.
Thanks partly to these superhuman efforts, as often happens between generations, many of their children subsequently entered a different world via education. In my case, it felt faintly traumatising and alienating, as a Catholic from a working-class home, to be propelled by means of a scholarship into a ‘posh’ Anglican all-girls school. I’ve read that experiences of dislocation — liminality between opposing cultures — are a common impetus for writers. I remember a lot of hiding and shame, figuring out what to do and say, being sniggered at for not having all the right items of uniform, for covering schoolbooks with brown paper bags instead of craft paper from WH Smiths.
St. Francis, alongside his eco-credentials, is associated with ‘poverty of spirit’. Born into an aristocratic family, he famously renounced his wealth by stripping himself of his luxurious clothes in public. Of course, destitution in itself, whether imposed or chosen, isn’t a virtue, and certainly doesn’t preclude attachment to riches. In the oft-misquoted verse, it is love of money which is the root of all evil. Monastic teaching across faiths turns attention to this root, as well as to the external circumstances, on the basis that it is possible to have as much attachment to a seemingly insignificant possession – a pen or a bowl – as to great riches. Human nature is such, though, that the rich and comfortably well-off are more likely to resist this work of detachment (camels/needle-eyes); and experience shows that those who own less, materially, are often the first to respond generously in human and environmental crises. Simplicity and freedom of spirit, communal sharing of possessions, community-mindedness, all make us more receptive to others’ needs, and facilitate the dismantling of those structures and privileges which keep us insulated one from another.
‘Homily of Francis’ pivots on an instruction St. Francis is said to have given his followers, to ‘preach constantly but only use words if you have to’. Poverty of speech, almost. The concept of silence resonates for me, both as personal silence — a shy child growing up in that large household, and, also, because I 'did time’ in a monastery, living under a rule of silence in a religious order.
Silence also has implications for writing/not writing, of course. While not permitted to write in the monastery (a diary I started, for psychological relief, was confiscated), I devised a transgressive practice of ‘night-writing’, writing secretly in the dark, and in the morning destroying the pages I’d written.
St. Francis’s maxim points to a prioritising of deeds, and being, over (mere) words – although actually he did also preach extensively ‘using words’. It hints at positive outcomes from the practice of silence, respected across many different cultures: attentiveness to the world around us and receptivity to nature, engendering an open mind and heart. A detachment which, paradoxically, increases capacity for engagement with all our human situations, and for enjoyment of nature’s profusion and exuberance. A full, not empty, silence — comprising all words, just as light comprises all colours.
Homily of Francis
by Geraldine Clarkson
Preach amber, ambergris, preach sweet
pea, purple sprouting, bread. Preach tourmaline
and turquoise, radish. Preach moon’s sprawl, full cream silk,
wind’s punch, yellow, storm, pigeon, squirrel,
monkfish and lawn. Peach.
Preach midnight blue, mackerel sky,
pomegranate. Preach cherimoya and budgerigar, flaked gold
harvest. Preach honey skin and peacock feather,
vermilion, passionflower; lily;
preach orange fire and white heat, snow, ice,
cacciatore, asparagus, broken crystal only
waterfall, drought, flounce of blossom, only use
bunion-roots, crocodile, hummingbirds, only use words
preach pepper, dance. Preach rocky coves only use words if
and prairies, parsnip bouillon; the violin only use words if you
played in French only use words if you have to