The title poem of John Clegg’s 2012 debut collection, Antler is an exercise in shifting perspective. It’s an elegy not simply for lost life, but a lost way of life, which evokes mortality without sentimentality and somehow comes nearest to resurrection when it takes its closest look at death. I met John on the 2008 Tower Poetry course, and have been in awe of his shamanic wisdom ever since.
by John Clegg
This was the empire of antler,
walrus ivory, soapstone and marten furs;
this was a choked democracy
around a marketplace where local kings
of seven lakes or less demanded
garrisons; this was a trading post
where silverscrap and Arab coins
by weight changed hands for whalebone.
This is a town below the mud
where ninety graves so far have been
disturbed: soldiers on stools,
two children end to end, a seamstress
wrapped in leather, seal-
hunters, shamen, priests, and one
clutching a shinbone notched
in what is now an undeciphered language.
There are no people in the first two lines of ‘Antler’. Or rather, there are signs of human presence detached from their makers – ‘marten furs’ only attain that name when they stop being the skin and hair of their original owners, and ‘walrus ivory’ isn’t what you call it when it’s attached to a living walrus. We see craftsmanship without the craftsmen, and an empire without its emperor; unless the antler itself is the source and seat of power. It’s certainly more durable than the people who carved it, hence the past tense; they have been replaced by the signs we recognise them by. Elsewhere in the collection, a speaker reflects: ‘Our mystics say the moss is growing us.’
But like William Golding in The Inheritors, Clegg puts flesh on nameless, ancient bones. (Being unable to date or locate the civilisation here perhaps indicates my own ignorance – at a guess, pre-modern, possibly Inuit – but there’s still a strong parallel with Golding’s imaginative paleoanthropology, even if the world of Antler is much closer to our own.) Clegg downgrades the size of the settlement; an empire is revised into a ‘marketplace’ in which the voice of the people can be heard, then to a ‘trading post’, suggesting both isolation and a link to the wider world. As he does so, the mysterious inhabitants seem more and more human, with their hands and their demands.
The same logic is at work in ‘local kings/of seven lakes or less’; another trade, of temporal power for personal poignancy. And as goods are bartered, the phonology also becomes richer, with those lapping ‘l’s, the alliteration in ‘silverscrap’, ‘weight’ and ‘whalebone’. We feel for the first time like we might be able to hear their language.
At which point, this half-imagined, half-reconstructed world is wrenched away from us, precisely as it is located within our own. Like in many of Clegg’s poems, the midpoint pivots the reader from past to present as the new tense – ‘This is’ – sheds its stark, forensic light. A town may be bigger than a trading post, but it isn’t an empire, and that ‘mud’, even as it’s dug away, re-covers the impression we were starting to form.
There’s an implication that the poet’s creative archaeology is preferable, both aesthetically and ethically, to the real thing – the jolting enjambment between the fifth and sixth stanzas makes the graves’ disturbance doubly troubling. As Hilary Mantel asked with relation to Richard III in her excellent ‘Royal Bodies’ lecture, ‘Why are we all so pleased about digging up a king?’ And from here on the line-breaks are jerkier, one even slicing through the middle of a compound word – the business of excavation displaces the text, unsettling Clegg’s assertive visions. We find no kings, just a jumble of ages and professions whose ascribed roles offer little individuation.
Until that ‘one’, in the third last line, whose ‘clutching’ gesture even in death grants him a human singularity. These are the hands in which goods were changing, folded inwards; those notches are the mark of art, finally seen next to what might be the remains of the artist. By identifying those time-worn symbols as ‘what is now an undeciphered language’, Clegg conjures the picture of a time when that language was spoken and understood. An image of transience also speaks of the life through which it passed.
You can find more of John Clegg’s work here and here, or buy the book from Salt. Golding’s The Inheritors is a fascinating artistic exploration of how we might see our forebears, and inspired this song by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, who once in fact shared a bed with John Clegg while touring the North-East, for reasons of a wholly practical nature.