Janet van Eeden - 2011-06-30 Untitled Document
Clive Lawrance’s new collection of poetry begins with a quote from WB Yeats: “Why should not old men be mad?”
It’s a good question, one Lawrance feels in a position to answer. Now that he is in his seventies he doesn’t feel the need to justify what he does. Not that he ever did, mind. It’s just that his latest collection of poetry is his most honest, his most personal, and it is, as anything is that Lawrance does, unapologetic.
“In the past, people have complained that I haven’t put myself into the poems I’ve written,” he explains over a cup of tea at my kitchen table. “For the first time, though, this book is full of me. My previous poems were observational and were true to who I was when I wrote them. The fact that I can express my own feelings in poetry now is a new development for me.”
Lawrance explains how reading his new-found favourite poet, American Ted Kooser, opened up the world of personal poetry for him. “I usually hate poems where feelings are spat on to the page like gob!” he exclaims. “So I’ve always been wary of pouring out my deepest feelings in poetry. Previously, most of my poetry was about nature. I considered myself primarily a nature poet. But Kooser showed me how I could write about people as well as myself. He is still my biggest inspiration. Strangely enough, my other favourite poets, William Blake, Robert Frost and WB Yeats, are too far removed from my own way of writing to influence me. Yeats inspires me very much, but he’s a giant, so he can’t really be my role model, as he’s so far beyond me. Also, I can’t relate to Yeats’s and Frost’s metrical worlds. Kooser, however, writes about the same kinds of things I do. I can identify with him. So I am able to emulate the way he approaches human feelings in a way which makes me feel comfortable. He is within my grasp. Ted’s my boy!”
A Time Ago
Looking down on your face, shrunken
with cancer, your mouth a gap
through which your life escapes,
I remember a time ago, in New York,
when we had arranged to meet
and seeing me coming
You skipped and raised your hands
as if to catch the moon, your smile so wide
the sleeping sun arose in me.
Many of the poems in this rich collection refer to Lawrance’s time in the Karoo during the ten years he lived in Nieu-Bethesda. Although he didn’t set out to write a retrospective about the Karoo as such, one memory about the area’s unique sand unlocked memories for him. Although Lawrance left the Karoo in 2004, he says that many of the nature poems about that inimitable place have been percolating inside of him for years.
There was this large grey Karoo tortoise
Trudging across a public lawn in Cape Town
followed by a young woman with a sad
drag in her feet. “Yours?” I asked.
She looked at me mournfully, and said,
“A traveller picked her up on a dirt road
near Beaufort West in the Karoo and left her
at my backpackers. She’s dying here.”
“I could take her back,” I offered. “O please,”
she said. Two days later, when I pulled up
outside her backpackers, the tortoise was in
a big box, her head and feet inside her shell.
The woman wept and said, “My husband says,
how can I know you will take her back?
But I know you will.”
Just inside the Karoo National Park,
I put the tortoise down on arid earth.
She pushed her feet and head out, sucked in
the dry air, and powered over rock and bush
to beyond a small bult … and I thought of
my own small home surrounded by stony hills.
“I loved the Karoo. I loved it!” Lawrance says with feeling. “I felt enlivened by it even though it wasn’t a particularly good time for my health. Despite a hernia, then a heart operation while I was there, walking in the Karoo healed me in so many ways and got me back to writing again. I credit my being in the Karoo and my ex-wife Gill Rennie for getting me writing again. That’s why Gill is given credit at the beginning of this collection. The simplicity of the landscape of that vast area chimes with my soul, as I’m not intellectually complicated. I may be emotionally complicated, though, and even though I loved living in the Karoo, my basic melancholic nature never left me.”
Clive Lawrance at the launch of My Barbados Hat
Photo: Robert Inglis
He heaves his head through succulent soil
and cries, “Everything, and nothing, is simple.”
He burrows down again murmuring,
“We must see the light to love the darkness.”
There is a tenderness in My Barbados Hat which touches many of the poems in the collection. While Lawrance talks about the fact that his poetry is simple and he doesn’t believe one has to obscure a poem to make it great, one or two poems touch archetypes which Lawrance wasn’t even aware of when he was writing.
“Occasionally I’d write a line which would come straight out of my subconscious,” he explains. “At first I wouldn’t understand it at all, until the moment when the unbidden biblical allusion made sense. My poem about the cobra surprising me in a moment when futility had me in its thrall was one of these happy accidents. Some of the lines almost wrote themselves and fitted the mood I was trying to describe. Only later did I realise that the cobra was a metaphor for sacredness. Its visitation was something which could shake you out of futility like nothing at all. The poem is quite old, but the cobra ending came to me out of nowhere fairly recently. I didn’t understand it at all when it did. Only when I’d finished writing the unbidden words did I realise that they referred to the sacredness underlying all life.”
Clive Lawrance with guitarist Peter Tennant who played at the reading.
Photo: Robert Inglis
On a Karoo Hillside
Alone with rocks and bushes,
no sound of wind or bird,
a blue-empty sky the old
postulates haunt him once more:
absurd, this life, our yearnings,
makings and breakings, all poetries,
commerce, gathering of facts
and crumbling artefacts ignoring
the spectre of the valley of death:
gentle Jesus, clear-eyed Buddha,
Socrates with unbeatable arguments,
of no help at all now;
futility has him in thrall;
until a cobra darkens his boot,
raises its hood, like a hat, scans
his eyes for a sign, then slowly subsides,
and forgoing an articulate flicker,
or fruit, silently slips away.
Lawrance concludes that a poet must write poetry for the love it and “also you must write it just for yourself”. Much of his poetry comes out of his meditations, whether they are five minutes or an hour long. Many of the poems in this collection are also about making peace with his past: his poems about his parents, his first ex-wife and others resolve any bitterness he may have harboured towards them. Fortunately, not all the poems are tinged with melancholy. Some turn to humour to make sense of the ups and downs of the past.
Taking the Cake
Dear mother, when I sent you
a book of my Karoo poetry
and a piece of Christmas cake,
you thanked me for the cake.
The readers of My Barbados Hat will definitely thank Lawrance for more than just the cake. This beautiful collection has poems which are as arid and bald as any Karoo rock, and others which are as delicate and surprising as the tiny flowering succulents hidden in the desert landscape. The poems grow more enriching on each rereading. Lawrance moves from the simple and quirky to the poignant and eternal within the space of a few poems. This is one collection I will keep dipping into over the years to come.
- My Barbados Hat is published by Jive Media. To purchase the book contact Robert Inglis at Robert@jivemedia.co.za or see more details below.
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