by Gillian Clarke
We live in a world where what is happening on the other side of the world often seems as close as what is happening in our own homes. This affects us, and makes us conscious of things never known to poets who wrote before radio, television, e-mail, the internet, the mobile phone. A poet writing now cannot leave out of her work what she knows is happening in the wider world.
The siege happened at the Iranian embassy in London, in the 1980s. Nine people, (I think) were shot dead when the police stormed the building, and it happened live on radio and television. It was one of the first occasions that people died as we watched or listened to a live broadcast, and it was very shocking - as shocking then as the twin towers was in 2001.
There are shifts both of place and of time in the poem - I am interested in these shifts, and have tried to write about them more than once. The scene shifts between the garden outside the kitchen window of the family house where I was born and lived until 1984, and the Iranian embassy in London. Time shifts between the summer day in the ‘80s when the siege happened, the photographs were sorted, and the poem was written, to the past when I was a baby, or even before I was born. The scenes of the past are conjured by the pile of old photographs on the kitchen table. The events of the poem’s present are shown in ordinary type. The events in the photographs are shown in italicised, indented verses.
What am I trying to do in this poem? To make the writer’s mind the stage on which all the drama happens. To show that, in one garden, on one summer day, an embassy is stormed, 9 people die while a yellow butterfly is crossing a lawn, blossoms open while blood flows, I write a poem, and sort photographs. Outside the window in the garden my father holds me in his arms 40 years earlier; my mother, even earlier, poses for a picture holding the bridle of a horse. In verse 3, lines 7-10, is a memory of riding over the field and down the lane on the top of a load of hay, when I was a child on my grandmother’s farm.
In the last verse, the wren sings - our smallest bird produces more young than any other - thus ‘that song of lust and burgeoning’. My parents’ images from the photographs stand in the garden, ‘never clearer’, the butterfly has almost reached the other side of the garden, and 9 people are dead in London. These things crossed the barriers of space and time. They happened in the poem’s now, in the poet’s consciousness, and it was all over in a few minutes.