Jeanette Lynes’ latest book engages on multiple levels. Bedlam Cowslip: The John Clare Poems can be read as biography, time travel, (channeled) memoir or simply, if you overlook the collection’s subtitle, as the continuation of a prolific Canadian poet’s exploration of identity and landscape, language, form and metaphor in this, her seventh collection of poetry.
It’s in the exploration of voice that Lynes takes the greatest risks in Bedlam Cowslip. As the book progresses, the reader understands this collection represents Lynes’ deeply researched and heartfelt response to an influential English poet, not only as a biographic rendering of his woeful life but as memoir too, mostly delivered in his (appropriated) voice or third person as well as second person.
The opening poem, “The Origins of Loss,” delivers a fiery introduction to setting, time and point of view: “It begins / with love, with hate—torches, / threshing machines, calder riddles / scorched.” The poet addresses her subject, the poet John Clare, in the inventive musicality of his language with words like “calder” (a violent stream) and images depicting his microscopic pastoral world: “charlock” (wild mustard), “chaffinch” (a bird) and “pismire” (ant). Such language, seemingly archaic, guides us into a bygone yet intriguing place with someone who sees deeply but is without a map, someone befallen by a terrible calamity. “Fires slur across the fen, then closer…” The subject is lost in an inferno. “It springs from fear, so fritted / your hat sweeps off your head. Where to go?” Where indeed, the reader might ponder.
Mystery gives way to clarity as the second person voice shifts into first. Lynes assumes the mantel of her subject and channels his voice. In “Small” we enter the mind of a poet, “Equipped with no Latin / no map, my own best foreground, own / best Byron.” A later poem, “Biography, Stones,” ingeniously sets the subject’s life in stones (one of his many obsessions): John Clare (1793-1864) of Northamptonshire, England, self described “Walker, Poet, Botanist, Lover, Farmer, Gardener, Lime Burner, / Dirty Pastoralist, Fiddler, Father, Song Collector, Husband, ‘Poor Clare’ / (bullocks on that infernal label), Drinker.”
Reading the book, it is helpful (but not necessary) to know that John Clare died in Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, that after some early critical acclaim, his poetry was generally forgotten until a twentieth century revival, and that Clare influenced a continuum of English poets (such as Ted Hughes) and contemporary Americans (John Ashbury among others). Most of these insights emerge naturally as Lynes resurrects Clare’s attention to detail, his feistiness and resistance (say, to his editors or patrons) and, tragically, his delusional mind.
Clare at times thought he was Byron, yelled at Shylock during a performance of The Merchant of Venice, and assumed himself to be one of the prize fighters he wrote about. But the trajectory of his descent, traced in poems such as “Sudden Fame,” “On Fading Fame,” and “On Doctors,” transcends the possible cliché of ‘mad, gifted poet who winds up penniless and incarcerated’—an all too frequent story, even in our age. By contemporizing Clare’s language with dazzling wit, Lynes generously transfers her brilliance to her subject. In “To The Prizefighters,” boxers morph into “Iamb the Awful” and “Spondee the Spontaneous Scythe” and, finally, the poet himself: “And him inside his roped sonnet slab— / hooking back hard from the corner, pummeling the enemy volta.”
Cora Siré is the author of a collection of poems, Signs of Subversive Innocents (Signature Editions, 2014), and The Other Oscar, a novel forthcoming in 2016 (Quattro Books). Her website is www.quena.ca.
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