The Field Mouse
by Michael Woods
Just as A Difficult Birth, Easter 1918 has political events as a backdrop so too does this poem. In this case Clarke is preoccupied with the events in Europe and, more specifically, those in the former Yugoslavia in which the Serbs and Croats fought bitterly in the Bosnian civil war.
The vulnerability of a tiny creature is employed by Clarke to draw attention to the vulnerability of people in the face of enormous war machines. A mouse can be easily killed by the indifferent blades of a mechanical plough just as people may be slaughtered by bombs or guns. The title of the poem recalls Robert Burns’ poem about a mouse in which he refers the animal as “tim’rous wee beastie”. Clarke draws attention in her poem to the timorous animals and people whose lives can be arbitrarily cut down without notice.
The poem opens in the season of summer and the sound of crickets or grasshoppers in “the long grass” that is brilliantly described as “a snare drum”. This captures the high frequency continuous noise with which we are all familiar in a hot summer. The second line “The air hums with jets” is almost appealing and certainly does not convey a sense of threat but we will soon connect their presence with the war referred to later in the poem. Clarke shifts attention to the meadow that is “far from the radio’s terrible news” (line 4) and the activity of her neighbour, clearly a farmer, who is spreading lime. This lime is described as “drifting our land / with a chance gift of sweetness”. This is quite surprising as lime is generally thought of as something that burns.
Stanza two presents a scenario of death from a single child’s perspective as he tries to save a mouse that is beyond help and that of children in Bosnia facing the devastation of civil war. Clarke makes us aware of the single child’s innocent belief that the mouse can be saved as he “comes running through the killed flowers” (line 10). This makes the theme of death explicit and prepares for the death of the “quivering mouse” (line 11) that “curls in agony big as itself” (line 12). Its eyes are described as “two sparks” that make one think of the spark o life and the cosmic image in “and the star goes out in its eye” (line 15) emphasises that even the smallest creature is part of a huge universe. Clarke continues her exploration of a wider perspective by considering the conflict in Bosnia. The personification of the earth in “the field’s hurt” reminds us that it is a whole nation that suffers when riven by war. Just as the mouse was mown down in “long grass”, so the children “kneel in long grass” (line 17) as if brought low by what adults have done. They are presented as being numbed “staring” at “what we have crushed” (line 18). The use of the word “we” implicates all adults in that they have a responsibility to children.
The third and final stanza again personifies land, this time the field that was introduced in stanza one. The description evokes a scene of carnage in a war, a killing field. The poet’s garden, it seems, is teeming with what amount to refugee survivors as it is “inhabited by the saved, / voles, frogs and a nest of mice.” (lines 20-21). The atrocity of war is unbearable and this is made clear in the fact that “we can’t face the newspapers” (line 23). This is something with which we can all identify.
The poem concludes with a dream influenced by the experiences of the day. The poet is haunted by the image of vulnerable children who are imaginatively connected with the mouse encountered earlier in the day. Clarke imagines their “bones brittle as mouse-ribs” (line 25). The alliterated b’s emphasise the fragility of young life. The personification of the air “stammering with gunfire” captures both the sound made by machine guns and the terror caused by their use, rendering people inarticulate with fear. The final thought we are left with is a horrific vision of the poet’s neighbour turning against her “wounding my land with stones”, as she puts it. This leads us to ask why civil wars begin and to acknowledge that such conflict could begin anywhere.