by Gillian Clarke
How to read the poem for its content:
The poem celebrates the birth of a first granddaughter, and, three years later, her 3rd birthday. Her name, Mali, is Welsh: pronounce it to rhyme with ‘Sally’. Mali was born three weeks earlier than predicted, when her mother (Catrin) went into labour while on holiday in our house in the countryside not far from the sea. The poem is written on the day of Mali’s 3rd birthday, and recalls the day she was born. As with many of my poems, I look from one place, or one time, to another place or time. Compare the way I do this in this poem with the shifts I make in ‘Catrin’, ‘Baby-Sitting’, and ‘The Field-Mouse’.
It was a hot day in early September. When my daughter’s labour began, I phoned the local hospital, (not the city hospital 100 miles away where she was supposed to be). They prepared a bed for her. We only just made it in time. Mali was born within half an hour of our arrival at the hospital. Next day we brought mother and baby home to our house, and later went to the beach to introduce the new baby to the sea.
The poem was written 3 years later on the occasion of Mali’s 3rd birthday party. It was another beautiful day. We picked blackberries, made a cake, hung balloons in the trees, and held up glasses of apple juice, ‘clinked’ them together, blew out the candles on the cake and sang ‘Happy Birthday’.
How to read the poem for its form:
The poem is written in four verses of seven lines each. The lines are unequal in length. They don’t rhyme*. The poem has a natural, storytelling rhythm*.
- Verse 1 introduces the story. It is complete, like a paragraph, and ends with a full stop.
- Verse 2 recalls the details of the day. It adds description, some background and atmosphere.
- Think about why the sentence beginning ‘Something in the event’ runs all the way through verse 2 and into verse 3 without stopping.
The story begins slowly. In verse 2, the words linger over the things that I love best in early September. Sun, sea, blackberries, ripe apples, yellow fields and a new baby, all born naturally, in their season. The day ends, and the verse ends, but my list is not complete. I want to add something. I want the moon! So I add a comma, leap the verse-break and continue the list, starting verse 3 with the full moon rising over the fields. The full moon of September, which looks blood-red as it rises, is known as the ‘harvest moon’. Harvest brings corn, apples, blackberries, and this time a baby. Verse 4 completes the poem. It returns to the present, the day of Mali’s third birthday, the day the poem was written, and links September, birth, the moon, the sea, and all the elements of the poem, with the final word, ‘blood’.
How to read the poem for its language:’
The poem is about 3 generations, and time. Look for key words, words like blood, sea, and moon. Also notice the use of numbers. You’ll find a lot of maths in this poem! I wrote the poem because I noticed a connection between all these things.
Blood: This is not cruel blood, the blood of horror, wounding, war or death. It’s good blood, the blood of belonging, genetics, fertility, birth, menstruation. Look for words and phrases that refer to or suggest blood: for example, ‘that unmistakable brim and tug of the tide’, ‘apples reddening’, the blackberries (‘brambles’) that stain ‘our fingers purple’, and ‘three drops of,/ probably, last blood.’ The birth of a baby involves great commitment. It’s a ‘life-sentence.
- What is ‘that unmistakable brim and tug of the tide’? The metaphor* of the ‘tide’ means the blood flow of menstruation. Why ‘tide’? Think about ‘tide’ and ‘tug’. The word ‘tug’ describes a physical sensation. It is also the force of gravity. The tides of the body and the Earth are rhythmic. The word implies a bodily rhythm, perhaps real, perhaps imagined or remembered.
- What does ‘and three drops of,/ probably, last blood’ mean? Think about ‘three’. It is a sort of magic number. It is often the number chosen in fairy stories, (three wishes), jokes, (‘There was an Englishman, an Irishman and a Welshman’), nursery rhymes. (Three little pigs. Three bags full.)
- But why ‘last blood’? Every young girl knows the moment of first menstruation, but no woman can ever know the day when her ‘last blood’ is shed. One generation’s fertility ends in blood, and the next generation arrives in blood. Blood is the messenger. It carries the genes, the DNA. The birth of a baby involves great commitment. It’s a ‘life-sentence.
The sea and the moon are connected. In a way the poem is one long metaphor connecting moon, sea and blood. The rise and fall of the tide is caused by the gravitational force of the moon pulling the oceans of the earth. Does the moon have a similar effect on the tides of the body? Think of the mathematics, the numbers that govern the life of the body and the earth. There’s a full moon every 28 days, which is also the average length of a woman’s menstrual cycle. The tide rises and falls twice a day. Human babies are born after 40 weeks gestation. From first blood (menstruation), to last blood (menopause) a woman may have almost 40 years of fertility. The body has an internal clock. Planet Earth too has a clock that makes night and day, the seasons of the year. Shakespeare said, ‘ripeness is all.’ There are words in the poem that connect the ripeness of the body with the ripeness of the season. Verse 3 begins with ‘things seasonal and out of season’. The harvest is ripe, but the baby arrives three weeks before her ‘season’. When we drink to Mali’s birthday, ‘we celebrate her with a cup/ of cold blue ocean’. We are close to the sea. When we raise a glass, it seems to fill with sky and sea, a bit like the two cliffs that ‘cup’ the bay.
* Look at my A-Z of poetry terms for explanations of alliteration, assonance, metaphor, rhyme, rhythm, simile etc, with examples from my and other set poets’ work.
Look at of Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Blackberry-Picking’, and think about how it compares and contrasts with the blackberry season in ‘Mali’. Compare the mood and outcome of Heaney’s harvest with this one. Think about the mood and ceremony of Mali’s birth and her third birthday party, and the death of Seamus Heaney’s 4-year old brother in ‘Mid-Term Break’. See Seamus Heaney’s introduction to his own poems.