The sea has inspired poets for centuries; Elizabeth Bishop, for instance, famously compared the sea off Nova Scotia to knowledge in her poem ‘At the Fishhouses’: “It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, / drawn from the cold hard mouth / of the world".
The sea around Scarborough is the inspiration for Sea Swim, John Wedgwood Clarke’s pamphlet. Written as part of imove, a Cultural Olympiad Programme in Yorkshire, this 18 poem sequence is a great showcase for Clarke’s talent for creating original metaphors and stunning images. Diving in (pardon the pun), the reader feels how the sea can transform on an emotional and spiritual level.
Clarke has a knack for recording detail in an imaginative way. A swimmer surfacing in his dark wetsuit is ‘like a cormorant’ (“Rings”), beach chalets are ‘small wooden stanzas’ (“Beach chalets”), a warship’s red flag is like a ‘pilot fish’ (“Warship, South Bay”) and a spider is ‘auburn-legged’ (“Winter Minutes”). The reader becomes part of this landscape with these intimate details.
There is a strong emotional undercurrent in these poems, felt in poems such as “Hydro”, where Clarke compares his shadow to a ‘frisky amoeba blundering in another world’ and the tender “Winter Minutes”, where there is ‘nothing to record but your absence’. The sea can take away just as easily as it can give back. Language, emotion and the real, physical, are all fleeting here.
Sea Swim is an excellent pamphlet. John Wedgwood Clarke’s deft imagery and knack for creating poetry with depth makes him one you need to read. Much enjoyed.