October by Gillian Clarke
Gillian Clarke's autumnal exploration of the bleak territory of death has a strongly Hardyesque aspect, with the overwhelming sense of grim inevitability and despair. Yet the end of the poem offers a change too: an acceptance of mortality which also renews commitment to oneself and to one's dreams, which in Clarke's world signifies writing. And it is writing that has the capacity to ward off the encroaching approach of death for it may remain when 'one' has literally gone. Just as the poem itself testifies to our capacity for feeling.
Each time I read this poem two phrases stand out.
The first involves the 'broken branch, a dead arm in the bright trees.' Autumn is the season of decay. The decay is compounded by the situation the speaker finds herself in. She is attending her friend's funeral and the sadness she feels at such a loss is reflected in the choice of language as well as perspective. The dismal reality of her friend's death saturates the landscape. There is also something rather surreal about reading a branch as a 'dead arm'.It suggests both disembodiment and a grotesque form of farewell perhaps?
We are aware that the poet's inner world is being reflected on the world outside, and may offer(ironically) a form of consolation as the world is acknowledging the departure of a human being and their relation to others.It may be a bleak world but perhaps it is not indifferent.
It is also possible that the 'dead arm' symbolises the now departed tenderness from the poet's life. Arms often represent care and connection, and if 'dead' then how can they reach out to us again? Makes me think of the death of Steerforth in David Copperfield( 'Tempest Chapter) where David's adored yet destructive friend is washed up on the beach:
'I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seem him lie at school.' Death returns Sterrforth to David and perhaps to his more innocent, younger self. The final image of Streeforth is tender and intimate, suggesting David still keeps faith with the faithless friend.
Signs may subsequently reveal or conceal far more than we consciously realise. Raw emotion renders us unguarded and 'surreal' . Little wonder that the worlds and words we move in testify to this experience.
Later in the poem, the coffin of the poet's friend is described as being 'lighter than hare's bones.' This resonates as it simply communicates the abject bodily state of her dead friend through terminal illness. In terms of literal weight, there is nothing to carry. However the weight of mourning is very different.
It is singular that the poet picks a 'hare' in order to communicate the suffering body of her friend. Why a hare?
Surely because the hare also has connotations of fragility and speed. It works as a symbol of liberation and freedom as well as underlining the cruel corporeal impact of severe illness. The cliche that death can release us from suffering is delicately revised in this poem. This revision makes Clarke's grief her own and gives her friend's death a very intimate singularity.