by Gillian Clarke
Q Why did you write the poem?
A ‘Mali’ celebrates the birth of a first granddaughter. The first 3 verses recall a beautiful September day when a young woman went into labour 3 weeks early at her mother’s house by the sea. They drove to the nearest hospital where the baby was born quickly and easily. Next day the family took the new baby to the beach. Verse four, exactly three years later, describes the child’s third birthday celebration at the same house by the sea.
Q What are the ‘three drops of last blood?
A The birth of a baby involves great commitment. It’s a ‘life sentence’. The ‘blood’ in the poem is the blood of belonging, tribal, genetic, as well as the blood of fertility, birth, menstruation. Last blood is the very last drop of menstrual blood in a woman’s life. No woman ever knows at the time when last blood has been shed. One generation’s fertility ends in blood, and the next generation arrives in blood.
Q What’s the poem about?
A The poem is about babies, generations, and time. The body has an internal clock. Planet Earth too has a clock that makes night and day, and the seasons of the year. Shakespeare said: “Ripeness is all.” There are words and phrases in the poem connecting the ripeness of the body with the ripeness of the season. The tides of the sea are pulled by the moon’s gravitational force. The moon has the same 28 day rhythm as an average woman has. There’s a symbolic connection between the moon and the sea, and the moon and women. In the last verse it is September again, three years later, time for a party, a cake, balloons, candles. So, as well as being a poem about babies, I suppose it’s about Life, the Universe, and Everything.
PS: Teachers may like to know that ‘Mali’ is fifth in a sequence of 7 poems under the general title, ‘Blood’. The sequence is published in my collection, The King of Britain’s Daughter. (Carcanet Press). There are clues in other poems in the sequence that cast light on ‘Mali’, phrases such as ‘brim of blood’, ‘dish of seed’, ‘the silted well’, ‘a taste of salt’, ‘month of the high tides’, and words like newborn, afterbirth, quicken, sea and moon.