POETS OF THE CLAY COUNTRY: Jack Clemo (1916 – 1994)

Jack Clemo was born in a clay land village, Goonamarris. His father worked on a clay-dry. Jack was educated in the village school and concentrated on his poetry, while he lived in poverty with his widowed mother. He became very religious. Despite losing his hearing and his sight by 1955, the scenes of the Clay Country became his symbols for mystical and religious experiences. His early poems are about the expanding clay industry overcoming nature until, when sites are abandoned, nature fights back.

The Clay-Tip Worker

(click to enlarge)

Our clay-dumps are converging on the land:
Each day a few more flowers are killed,
A few more mossy hollows filled
With gravel. Like a clutching hand
The refuse moves against the dower,
The flaunting pride and power
Of springtide beauty menacing the sod;
And it is joy to me
To lengthen thus a finger of God
That wars with Poetry. […]

I love to see the sand I tip
Muzzle the grass and burst the daisy heads.
I watch the hard waves lapping out to still
The soil’s rhythm for ever, and I thrill
With solitary song upon my lip,
Exulting as the refuse spreads:
“Praise god, the earth is maimed,
And there will be no daisies in that field
Next spring; it will not yield
A single bloom or grass blade: I shall see
In symbol potently
Christ’s Kingdom there restored:
One patch of Poetry reclaimed
By Dogma: one more triumph for our Lord.”


The Flooded Clay-Pit

These white crags
Cup waves that rub more greedily
Now half-way up the chasm; you see
Doomed foliage hang like rags;

A flooded quarry
(click to enlarge)

The whole clay-belly sags.

What scenes far
Beneath those waters: chimney-pots
That used to smoke; brown rusty clots
Of wheels still oozing tar;
Lodge doors that rot ajar.

Those iron rails
Emerge like claws cut short on the dump,
Though once they bore the waggon’s thump:
Now only toads and snails
Creep round their loosened nails.

Those thin tips
Of massive pit-bed pillars – how
They strain to scab the pool’s face now,
Pressing like famished lips
Which dread the cold eclipse.

Like Rowse, Clemo was fascinated by Roche Rock and its history and folklore. In this extract from his poem ‘In Roche Churche’, published in 1986, two years after he had left Cornwall with his wife to live in Weymouth, Clemo describes a visit to the medieval church on its sudden pinnacle.

There’s a famous freak rock near us,
A black savage skull of a thing on the moor.
Monks built a chapel there and one wall stands
Facing the sea still, high on the schorl mass.
Gales from both coasts have struck the pinnacle
A thousand times, and shaken this church door
Which we approached under fragrant leafage
Up the lane from a July-scorched stile…
Something remains impregnable, holds evidence
Without a technique of defence.

All extracts from Jack Clemo, Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 1988)