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This week's featured poem is "Spring Equinox, 2021" by Gillian Clarke.

This week’s featured poem is “Spring Equinox, 2021” by Gillian Clarke.

Spring Equinox, 2021

First summer night
The world is transformed

In a world that has been recreated, the world has been changed.
streets are carless,
The streets are quiet.

Flamboyant, a kite
floats flame on blue,

The bird extends its wings and fans out the feathers of its tail.
and turns on a breath.

High above the fields, miles in the sky.
and other birds

Rooks, crows, gulls, and other bird species flying over.
the rivers

Above the urban areas, the sky formations, and the waterways
the atmosphere,

in the celestial realm
the Earth

The Earth’s ozone layer becomes clearer.
of particulates, of nitrogen dioxide,

We take a breath once more.

In this clean new silence

Birdsong is the source of all sound.
a small wind
in the trees,

The descent of a flower’s petal.
an opening leaf,
the turn of a page,
your breath, mine.

The Silence, the latest collection by the Cardiff-born poet, Gillian Clarke, opens with retrospective poems concerning the Covid pandemic. These records of loss are reverently assembled in the sequence, Hours, and sharply focused in briefer elegies such as The Year of the Dead (quoted on her publisher’s website).

The lockdowns brought about some benefits, and the atmosphere drastically changes during the Spring Equinox of 2021. Now, the focus shifts to how the “natural” world has benefited from the decrease in human activities. Initially, we notice the stillness itself, a presence that roams the streets in the absence of traffic: it seems to move quietly, as stillness often does when we listen closely and discover that our ears can make it tangible. Later in the poem, in the sixth verse, even the smallest sounds are evoked by the moment’s joy: to hear “the flutter of a petal” or “a sprouting leaf…” is to delve into unknown wonders.

In her writing, Clarke blends moments of peacefulness with bursts of color and sound. The Red Kite, a type of bird that is considered endangered in Wales, is described as both flashy and resembling flames, reveling in its successful homecoming as it gracefully maneuvers through the air (much like the journey of life). In the following stanza, a loud and soaring group of “rooks, crows, gulls” takes center stage, guiding the reader’s gaze upwards towards the “cities, clouds, atmosphere…” until finally reaching the “heavens above.”

The phrase “vault of heaven” evokes a dramatic and tumultuous event caused by Satan in Book 1 of Milton’s Paradise Lost (lines 663-669): “He spoke; and to confirm the words, out-flew/ Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs/ Of mighty Cherubim; the sudden blaze/ Far round illumin’d Hell. Highly they raged/ Against the Highest, and fierce with grasped arms/ Clash’d on their sounding shields the din of war,/ Hurling defiance towards the vault of Heav’n.” If we, like the poet, can remember this passage, we can better understand the context of the silent cleansing. It is our own destructive actions that have damaged the ozone layer with “particulates,” which have now started to dissipate in the enchanted moment of the poem.

The stanza concludes with a sense of relief as it is now plagued by a respiratory virus that depletes oxygen, but we can now breathe freely once more. There is no longer a struggle for air, no more unpleasant disturbances. The poem paints a picture of a new paradise on Earth where all that can be heard is the sweet sound of birds singing. And in this fixation on birdsong, the other smaller noises begin to stand out and become recognizable.

The ending of the poem conveys a sense of closeness, as the couple quietly reads together and realizes the strength of their bond through the sound of their breathing. Each breath is acknowledged separately, as “your breath, mine”. This short poem heavily relies on the significance of breath.

The Silence discusses more than just the pandemic. Gillian Clarke’s writing often contrasts her deep connection to rural Wales with the feeling of being an outsider due to her “mother-tongue” being English. These reflections are skillfully explored in the collection, particularly in the face of environmental disaster. The landscape that Clarke has cared for and written about is now threatened by global shadows, making it difficult for many to feel a sense of belonging. The Silence contains poems that emphasize the significance of place and the need to pay attention to its words and silences.

Source: theguardian.com