Wake: Up to Poetry
From “The Butterfly Notebook” to The Magpie and the Child: An Interview with Catriona Clutterbuck
Catriona Clutterbuck’s debut collection, The Magpie and the Child, is out this month, and the book was a long time in the making. Bernard O’Donoghue, fellow Irish poet and academic, interviewed Clutterbuck about moving forward through the act of making poems, the two-way traffic of absence and presence, and the process of transforming manuscript to book over many years.
Bernard O’Donoghue: The Magpie and the Child centers on the desperate experience of the totally unexpected death of your lively daughter Emily just before the age of eleven. How did the idea of writing this book come about?
Catriona Clutterbuck: The book has had a long evolution. About three weeks after our daughter died, I began writing a journal. This was spurred by something I came across in a book on grief—at that time I was casting around fairly chaotically for some kind of chart in this unknown world in which my husband and I found ourselves. In one of these books, a mother wrote that she wished she’d begun writing a diary from earlier on in her journey through the months and years after her child died. I took this as a cue, and began. It was a place to go to, every day, just for a few minutes. The habit started to stick, and grow. All through that first summer, I wrote in a small spiral-backed notebook with a butterfly design on its cover, which had been given to me by Emily a year or two before, and had been put by, unused; I started another notebook after that one was full.
On the day that Emily would have been going back to school after her summer holidays, at the end of August, it was announced that Seamus Heaney had passed away—a dreadful shock for so many in Ireland and beyond. That day—I don’t really know why—I felt a very strong imperative to start doing something different with the notebooks, and I began transcribing parts of them into a word file on my computer. By the end of that day, a few lines began to present themselves from the sea and I pulled them out; they began to take the shape of something that could almost be a poem… Then some more lines from another excerpt from that summer’s jottings, and so it continued. A thread—a lifeline of sorts—had been weaving itself and now began to ask something else of me: to make something else out of it, to weave it and cut it and make cuttings out of it for other threads to grow (forgive my mixed metaphors!).
BO’D: Part One of the book is a collection of named individual poems, but Part Two (Threnodies for Emily) is a series of nameless lyrics, ranging in length from two lines to forty-four. How did you decide on this two-part structure?
CC: This is my first full-length collection of poems, and there are pieces in it that date as far back as the mid-nineteen-eighties. However, for years after I first had the idea of this book, I did not consider the possibility of including any poems written before May 2013 when Emily died. I first began to think about making a book of poems about the experience of living through the period after our daughter died around the autumn of 2013, within five or six months of her death. Over the following four years or so, a manuscript developed that I called “The Butterfly Notebook.” It was organized chronologically, reflecting the calendar seasons after Emily passed away, with each poem numbered, dated, and titled. In a version dated July 2017, there were 280 mostly short poems in “The Butterfly Notebook” (of which about eighty would remain in the Threnodies as now published). By that point, I’d also included a couple of pieces—“prequel” poems—I’d written years before, about Emily as a baby and young child, including what is now the opening title poem of The Magpie and the Child, and its final poem, “Her Dawn.” Looking at these two pieces through the lens of her death, the first seemed to speak forward to that event but the second to speak beyond it, in a way that I found satisfying.
I now think, looking back, that the very defined chronological structure of “The Butterfly Notebook” was necessary for me at that time, for in the first few years after Emily died, these poems were like white poles in an unmarked bog that stretched away into the distance with no boundary in sight. I was creating a track, as though the person writing the poems had already passed through this bog to the other side even while the rest of her was utterly relying on these faint markers as a way to take the next step without sinking and drowning.
It was my editor at Wake Forest University Press, Jeff Holdridge, along with an early reader of the manuscript for the Press, who, three or four years in, first suggested to me that I incorporate earlier poems along with the bereavement poems into the same volume. And so I went back and revisited my older work, including a sequence written when I was expecting Emily and when she was a baby and toddler. I started to select pieces from this older material, and as I re-entered the energy field of these older poems, I also begin to try out another suggestion of my editor’s—that I carve an undated sequence of poems out of “The Butterfly Notebook” for the second part of the collection, where the organization would no longer be strictly chronological, but would operate on a different logic.
BO’D: What was that logic? The division of the published book into two parts is not as clear-cut as it sounds, I think. Part of the power of the book’s structure is the way the later poems of Part One deal with your pregnancy with Emily and the child’s living years, darkening towards the tragedy of Part Two. Similarly, towards the end, the book seems to be establishing a kind of temporal distance from the child’s death before returning to conclude with a wholly literal account of her death and burial. And again, the birth-poem “Her Dawn” which, as you say, began as a prequel poem in “The Butterfly Notebook,” is now a coda “where I hold her who feeds from me still—”. How was that designed?
CC: Its design was certainly propelled through many vital conversations along the way! In addition to Jeff and the WFU Press anonymous reviewers to whom I owe so much, I was extremely fortunate to have had access to the listening ears and keen eyes of a number of other poets and close readers of poetry, upon whom drafts of the grief poems were thrust at various points during the seven or so years of this book’s gestation (including, of course, yourself, Bernard). For example, among some invaluable pieces of practical advice given to me by Paula Meehan was her suggestion that when conceiving the collection of threnodies as a totality, I might literally cut the poems into units and lay them out physically, then play with their arrangement. So, our dining table (which belonged originally to my grandmother Emily Moran, after whom our daughter was named) became the surface upon which the poems were shuffled and reshuffled over many days.
In their original chronological order, the arc which you have so aptly described here as structuring the Threnodies for Emily sequence took place in various patterns in each of the seasons into which the longer set of poems was originally organized. But in the Threnodies sequence in the book as published, rather than me and my journey of grief through those years directing the lay-out, the poems themselves led the way in the organization of the material: I started to attend more to lines of imagery and shape and feeling, rather than to autobiographical imperative. This also allowed me to select certain poems for inclusion and more for holding back, though some of the latter too have claims to be heard. As a result, the Threnodies are one version of the story, open to further reshuffling.
I have bracketed the book as a whole with the two poems, “The Magpie and the Child” and “Her Dawn” (both set at dawn), because I hope they speak to the two sides of the larger question with which this book as a whole is concerned: whether and how the shadows of as-yet-unknown and pre-known darkness, may combine with an unbreakable promise of light—the one arriving never entirely without the other.
BO’D: I’ve mentioned above that in the more substantial, earlier collection of the elegies, the individual poems were named. For example, one of the most powerful poems, beginning “I’ve barely begun to touch this,” had the title “Her Body.” It is hard to decide whether this hugely affecting poem is better with or without the title. Similarly, the wonderful miniature
Coming in our gate.
was entitled “Checking” in the earlier collection. Again, the swift poem beginning “I stare hard at the space you stood by” was previously called “The Swift,” establishing the simile at the outset. What do you think about the effect of titling in general?
CC: When it was first suggested to me that I remove the titles from the individual parts of the Threnodies sequence, I was afraid that they would all blur into an amorphous mulch of text, and that many of them would disappear. There were a few poems which were omitted because they could not stand without their titles; however, far fewer than I had expected. The titles at the time of writing the poems helped these poems operate as those white poles in the bog I spoke of earlier—signals of a way through. But now, looking back, I see the larger process of movement through loss as less linear than spiral: one returns over and over to the same often stark realities, but never from exactly the same starting point—there is progression, but it bends indirectly. Stripping the poems of their individual titles in the Threnodies has been like taking down scaffolding and hoardings at a certain stage of a building project: it has, I hope, lightened the work in that it has helped the poems to conduct various hues of the experience of loss through each other’s surface and refract onwards whatever light any one of them may briefly capture. It makes the poems literally more interdependent, as they need each other more immediately, in order to make sense. So too, I think, with communities of grief in the outside world.
BO’D: Yes, I am aware of many further poems in the earlier version that might certainly be included. But I can see some in which the title does seem somehow integral. In a few surviving cases you have incorporated the title to start the poem, haven’t you—like Heaney starting “Fodder”: “Or as we said, fother.” This is affected too by the reorganization on the table into links other than the chronological, isn’t it?
CC: There is a short poem in “The Butterfly Notebook” titled “Death’s Sting,” which goes as follows:
My aunt coming in
with young nettles
for a spring
was told the news.
She found the basin
three days later
with the nettles in it,
The title here could not be incorporated, the poem could not survive its loss, and so the piece was taken out of the Threnodies sequence. In some other cases, incorporating the title into the poem led to me revising the poem in question quite substantively, such as the poem about the street artist outside Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (where the rhythmic shift resulting from including the placename demanded a more radical reshaping of the piece), or the poem about the Pollnabhrón Dolmen (where including the title led me to attempt to arrange the poem on the page in accordance with its subject). In fact, dropping the titles worked curiously well in tandem with dropping the poems’ strict chronological arrangement: this was a dual process whereby a kind of co-dimensionality rather than linearity became the sequence’s informing principle. In the editing process, I began to work more by instinct than by the demands of verifiable witness to what had happened. In the end, this has, I hope, helped this sequence as a whole to become better attuned to the central questions and concerns raised within and across its individual parts.
BO’D: The poems of the Threnodies particularly seem to me to have a wonderfully sustained, unforced music. I was very struck by what you said about finding that the diary entries in “The Butterfly Notebook” slowly shaped themselves. I wondered if, when this pattern had started, you consciously put any form into practice? You have particularly perfected a kind of tight semi-rhyming quatrain like this beautiful and moving example:
This year the cloth she’s woven
is left out on our windowsill,
absorbing us until morning
retrieves it, drenched with spring.
Is it a case of art hiding art as the half-rhyming vowels (woven, morning; sill, spring) carry the theme and imagery (the double-sense of absorbing), the Brigid’s Night “drenched with spring”? But there are many other forms and patterns too. The sentiment of the poetry is so compelling that we hardly pause to marvel at the technique.
CC: Bernard, thank you. In the Threnodies, at the point of their transition from diary entry to poem, I was certainly conscious of arrangement of line and sound and rhythm; indeed, I’m afraid my work may sometimes be too wedded to such design. The imperative was to put some kind of shape on my experience, in such a way that the experience could become something outside of me as well as inside of me, with its own life. This was a discovery I was making as though for the first time during the year following Emily’s death. The absorption of my attention demanded by the effort to find and shape words that could describe the new world into which I had entered was a blessed distraction-cum-release. Because it involved one ear on the sound-waves and sight-lines of words themselves and another on their semantic signals, it made me stand back from the experience behind the poems in the act of attempting to get as close to it as possible.
Most of all, this effort to write allowed me to feel that if something like a poem could be made, then there might be a way forward, if literally only one step at a time. This possible good effect of the act of making is brilliantly described by the poet Denise Riley in her powerful 2012 essay written after the death of her son, published as Time Lived, Without its Flow (Picador, 2019). Riley speaks of rhyme as “do[ing] its minute work of holding time together; making a chain of varied sound-stitches across time, a link to represent that feeling of sequence which may have been lost when the writer’s or reader’s usual temporal ‘flow’ has been cut by another’s abrupt death.” Yet she also rightly reminds us: “All this whirring on the page in the name of taking thought—and still the stubborn dead don’t return to put it straight.” Nonetheless, the effort to make something makes a difference. In its simplest terms, I felt that writing a poem was something to do which would take up as much energy as I could give it, till my daughter and I would meet again. And in a strange way in those first few years, the very fact that (due to her death) I felt there was little at stake in anything I did, allowed a freedom to write in a way I had never experienced before.
BO’D: It seems miraculous that you were able to do that. You are a wonderful singer; I have heard from mutual friends of ours who were at Emily’s funeral that your singing of “Queen of the May” was one of the most astonishing feats of courage they had ever witnessed. It’s an impossible question, but where does that courage come from? It’s the same courage that enabled you to write I suppose, maybe an essential part of the will to live on. It has helped me to understand better what is meant by “the grieving process” to which the recovery of a body is said to be essential. There is a sustained moderate religious iconography throughout the book, though that seems more a general cultural environment than an internal belief system. “This cup handed to me.” You deal with this beautifully in this poem:
“You have great faith”:
No. I’m paddling a shallow stream.
all hung with pussy willows
flowing through fields of willed dreams
on an island adrift in an endless ocean.
CC: In the very frightening early days of our grief, Emily’s father and I had been catapulted into that other dimension of being—that realm of blankness in which all who are bereaved must live for some time: castaways by virtue of losing someone who will always remain at the heart of your sense of yourself. In this dimension, you watch yourself as from a distance, acting as though you are recognizable, when you know for sure that you no longer know who you are and what you are for in this world. It is a very strange and scary place to be in. In my experience, that which pushes the bereaved further into the dark and cold is not so much the occasional, reflex, fear reaction activated in those people who learn (or already know) of your situation and who metaphorically or literally cross the road to get away from you. Such experience of being consciously or unconsciously outcast is often enough reported by bereaved parents, who can identify such minor cruelty at a hundred paces and with luck (and the support of others), find barriers quickly enough against its impact. Rather, it is the apparent normality of the rest of the world which makes the bereaved feel most alien at the start—not least, the sight of yourself getting up and getting dressed and seeming to function…
But towards us, across that same chasm—from every direction—came an extraordinary reach of love and care: from our neighbors, friends, and our immediate and wider families; from Emily’s teachers and schoolfriends and their parents; from other bereaved parents who we met through organizations like Anam Cara (the Irish parental bereavement association); from our work colleagues; and sometimes from people we barely knew or didn’t know at all. This was an outreach that almost literally held us in this world, especially during the first few years after Emily died. We were not on our own. She was loved by many, and many together shouldered the weight of her passing. Most of these friends have never met each other, and few if any of them will ever know the power of what they did for us at that time—and indeed continue to do—just by having been there; it was and is a community of grace. Indeed, my very faith in the value of making the Threnodies was (mostly unknown to them) supported by those same people who wove such an extraordinary mesh of lifelines all around my husband and me, holding us throughout that time. It is through them that any courage of mine has been summoned.
On the day of Emily’s funeral, I sang the hymn “Queen of the May” after the rite of communion during her funeral mass, with Emily’s father accompanying me on guitar. It was a piece I knew from my schooldays (the hymn crops up in that setting in the poem titled for it in the book), and I had sung it a few years previously at the funeral of a dear friend, Kathy Martin. At Emily’s mass, my husband and I had arranged in advance with the priest and the choir, that if we felt able to do this piece, we would, and if we didn’t, we simply wouldn’t move from our places. I could not speak in public on that day, but if possible, I needed to use my voice.
I am writing this answer to you, Bernard, in the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown in Ireland and around the world, when so many people are having to go through the funerals of their loved ones without the physical presence of friends and wider family at their side: my heart goes out to them. In the church that day, there was a particular energy—an enormous flow of support and love in the midst of the deep sadness and distress shared by everyone there. I sang in honor of my daughter and in honor of the people there and further afield who were with us in spirit, but I believe that the power of that other energy I speak of here, in fact sang all of us. I believe that she, Emily, found this and many other ways that day to tell us that she was as fully alive as the world itself is alive, and that she was very much with us still.
In the darker days that followed, such faith was harder to sustain: it felt more willed and forced. She was also gone; our daughter was no longer with us in the flesh and never would be again in this world. Never will be. But that does not mean that the energy we felt around us on the day of her funeral, was not real: it was truer than the depths we would soon after, and to some extent always will, experience. Those depths are not the only story, and as time goes by, they are less and less the main story… I know, I know—I’m still paddling that stream upriver… but that’s ok. This is my journey.
BO’D: That is very compelling, Catriona. I wonder if this matter of absence and presence, and their dividing lines is a matter of faith or religion at all? It is something that art and literature are very concerned with, isn’t it? Things that are present to the mind and the sympathies (something which this book raises profoundly) have a kind of reality beyond a purely physical existence, don’t they, and they are not wholly “gone” (your word)? Do you think such different kinds of reality have force?
CC: Yes, I do think—or rather, I believe—these different kinds of reality have force. This faith has of course been trained through the religious tradition in which I was raised, and has been further tuned through my reading of literature, especially that of the Irish tradition I know best, including work by many writers who do not profess religious adherence. The matter of presence and absence and the borderlines between them, is not just a matter of faith and religion, but also of literature, philosophy, farming, interpersonal relations in everyday life… the list goes on. I see all these areas of human concern as folded into each other rather than distinct, for any enterprise which aims towards truth must explore that permeable boundary between what is and what is not: we live in a multi-dimensional universe! There may be tension but there is no need for conflict between these several parts of our lives or between these various forms of our understanding, whether in the past or the present.
For myself, my mother and aunts had powerful belief in the fullness of human life as a force which crosses the boundaries of this world and the otherworld. Their testimony to this faith was a tremendous resource for me in the difficult years between Emily’s death and their own more recent passing—God rest their souls. Emily’s death has rendered such belief at once more urgent and more simple: practically speaking, since there are no answers anyway to the question of why she died, why would I give up that which helps me keep going? For me, all of this is founded on three very simple articles of faith: first, the life of a child (or of anyone) is of such inherent power that death cannot end it; second, if I am still here without my child, I am meant to be here, though I don’t know why (in the early days this used to torment me, but not so much now); and third, the physical world around me keeps on signaling to me and us all: there is more, there is more—right here and now… though we fail its invitation so often.
BO’D: Speaking of the physical, I remember your poem “The Dry Mouth” from a long time ago when I had the good fortune to publish it in The Oxford Magazine. Here in Part One it leads to a series of wonderful pastoral poems, mostly about your farming life in Tipperary. But of course your Midas touch with imagery makes the dry sensation of the bitter sloe (the bitterness is left for the reader to provide) an ominous lead-in to the subject of the book. The title-poem of the whole book is a preamble to Part One, dated to 2005 when Emily was three, and it stands outside the book, casting a fateful shadow over it all. Did that event with the magpie seem fateful at the time?
CC: The short answer is, no: not fateful, rather, the magpie seemed to embody some fear I knew I was projecting and around which I needed to put some kind of boundary. As you say, I wrote that poem when Emily was about three years old. We had had a week or more of being woken up by this bird at the window each early morning. I wrote it to name the darkness the bird seemed to presage, as a means of staving off its possibility: if one played with such fears, they would have less of a grip. I wrote it to name the anxiety I felt and which I believe every parent feels, so as to put such archaic and inevitable fear symbolically in its place—into the box of a poem, where it might still rap at the glass, but not cast a shadow that was darker than need be on the lives we then lived. At that time, we had no reason whatsoever to believe that Emily’s life might be at risk.
I still believe the poem played its proper role in that regard, even though it inevitably read differently after she died. But none of this was the bird’s fault—he was just curious, trying to work out his own shadow in the glass. Louise Norton’s wonderful artwork “Magpie & Child”—the cover image of the book—which was created after Louise read the manuscript in the summer of 2020, also has had an impact on how I feel about the magpie of the poem: the space between him and me has warmed. The life-force in the painted image has prompted this—itself, for me, made more mysterious by the fact that, unbeknownst to me, when working on “Magpie & Child,” Louise chose as her palette, an object from an old set of children’s art materials I’d just passed over to her children—a blue plastic plate which had been used by Emily years before for the same purpose…
The fear I’ve described here is part of parenthood, and even now if I could go back, I wouldn’t give it up—not because it prepared me in some way for what would happen, but because it is integral to the exposure which all parents know and learn to live with. The uncontrollable in fate is something parents have to come to terms with in one way or another, all through their lives after the birth of their children, no matter what does or doesn’t happen. The death of a child, thank God, is a relatively rare event in the part of the world in which I live (though of course this is not the case everywhere and in every community). Emily’s death was not the result of some dark fate imposed from outside, visited randomly upon us (though there are times when I have felt it to be so). It was and is part of her larger journey of life. We’re all rapping on the glass here, seeing in it only darkly. Some day we will see clear. This poem is now positioned at the very beginning of the volume, before the poems which trace my own life journey from long before she came into our lives. As I have said, I hope it is balanced by the poem which closes the book, “Her Dawn”: the writing of this book has helped me to trust that my daughter’s day is still coming with magic.
BO’D: Your earlier phrase “a community of grace” reminded me of the days of Catechism and the idea of “the Community of Saints.” I wondered how that might connect with the luminous observation “my daughter’s day is still coming with magic.” What does “magic” mean?
CC: The idea of the community of saints is important to me: its radical inclusivity, involving as it does (in my understanding), human beings’ renewal and perfection through their full acceptance of God’s love in life after death. I also really like the sociability of the idea! As for magic, long ago in my two-teacher primary school in Tipperary in the late sixties and seventies, at least once or twice a year, traveling magicians used to be allowed a spot in the school day. They would fish coins from behind our ears, make objects disappear and reappear in their hands, all the usual stuff. They enthralled us, and though we knew a trick was involved, what they did was truly magic, for their skill involved the power of prompting dynamic adjustment of states of disbelief and belief. These magicians gave us the sense that there was more going on in that space of our everyday world—our ordinary classroom—than we could see or know. To me, looking back, this effect was in continuum rather than conflict with our developing religious faith. I still believe this to be so: what is it but magic—whether expressed in a sleight of hand or the twist of mist at dawn—that points us towards the possibility of authentically accepting mystery and its beneficence? It is in this sense that I say, my daughter’s day is coming with magic.
BO’D: What holds the Threnodies together is an insistent subject, but also what I called your Midas touch with imagery, a sustained set of images (light, water, stone, birds, rear-views). Some of the images, such as “a knife loosening a seam” are devastating in their aptness. There are remarkable visual echoes too: Emily’s “hat on askew” and the capstone at Poll na Brón “tilted at a jaunty angle” seven pages later. While the general matter of form and how it may be technically applied in a single text is wonderfully captured in your phrase “the box of a poem” (which I think is a clue to your poetic procedure), how consciously was the framework of imagery constructed across the sequence? Or did it just grow out of the subject?
CC: Bernard, I would never have seen that link between the images of the hat and capstone… but when you point it out, it is there. The framework of imagery was not consciously constructed, but I suppose I did become increasingly aware that certain images were recurring. I have never thought of myself as having any particular knowledge of or interest in birds, for example, but yes—they come up over and over in the Threnodies. Perhaps my ignorance of bird life is what has made them possible conductors of the presence in absence, absence in presence, of the person at the center of this sequence… Also, patterns of light and darkness took on a particular importance. John McGahern has celebrated that fact that the foundational unit of time in all our life on earth, is the day. Emily had a short-cut night prayer that went like this: “Thank you God for the day.” We had it inscribed on her grave. It just about says all that can be said.
BO’D: It’s an extremely interesting thought that the terminology of a subject of which we are relatively ignorant belongs in that gap between absence and presence—a kind of movement from absence to presence, making that a two-way traffic, balancing the presence-to-absence of loss. Is this how you think it works?
CC: Well, the birds are there, whether we know their names or not. The singing of birds conducts something powerful. We make meaning out of sound, whether that be the sound of the birds themselves or of the names we call them by. And yes, it now occurs to me, this is an instinct for the music of what happens. To attempt to answer your question, perhaps this music—or what I venture you have here named “presence”—can play only in absence: but in an absence understood less in terms of vacuum, than of room… The sky, after all, is a very roomy place.
BO’D: The blurb at the front of the book says it is “a story of great loss, love and learning.” The loss and love are self-evident; but the learning (some of it Biblical, some from Irish) is lightly carried, like the formal poetic skills throughout…
CC: Any learning here is that of a magpie—a bit taken from here, a bit from there… Anything one knows, whether in depth or in passing, may be put to use, once this is done in good faith. The jury is always out on what counts as learning—maybe especially when it comes to poetry…
BO’D: I agree that it’s important that learning—and for that matter knowledge—is recognized as a product of a magpie-like process of collecting. But I did wonder too if there are any particular works of art, writing especially, that you found important or consolatory. This links to the question of faith of course; but outside of that, are there writers that helped or were important? Hopkins? Bishop? Ben Jonson or the Middle English Pearl (the things I mentioned on the back of the book)? How do you feel about elegy or consolation as a form? Or resignation? As a medievalist I see the consolation as pretty well the most essential form of the lyric poem. I was thinking about Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “I am not resigned”: “Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind… But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.” I think this is not the spirit of your poetry?
CC: In the weeks and months after Emily died, I hunted almost obsessionally for poems on death and bereavement, and squirrelled away my finds—those poems which made me feel less alone, and helped me feel that perhaps I too might be able to live with and through such loss. Music has mattered too in this way. For example, I have spent many car-hours on the M7 listening to Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, given to me by a friend a couple of years after Emily died. I never knew it before. I have an as-yet unfulfilled plan of assembling into one location also, those songs which have spoken to me about loss, so as to finally try to sing them—pieces such as Tracy Chapman’s “The Promise.”
I do believe in consolation as a form; what is the point of our collective human experience, other than to reach out so as to share with others what each of us may have learned of our own and others’ weakness and vulnerability, along with our power to survive? This was done for my husband and me directly in the outpouring of letters and cards sent to us after Emily’s death. Passed into our hands too were poems written by Emily’s schoolfriends and our own close friends and relatives, and also by people further afield, like Michael Longley who sent me his two poems “Fragrant Orchid” and “Waterbirds,” and Medbh McGuckian, who wrote “On the Sleeve, How Can Tears Dry in Two Colours?”—all precious texts.
There are some collections of poems I was lucky enough to find, which explore the territory of death and loss with very particular nuance, and which have guided and accompanied me during these past eight years since my child died. These include Seamus Heaney’s translations of Jan Kochanowski’s Laments (2009) and Sarah Broom’s Gleam (2013). Sarah is a wonderful young New Zealand poet who died leaving three children after a long, hard battle with illness, shortly before Emily passed away: you and I both, Bernard, were honored to have known her. Also included here is Chris Agee’s collection Next to Nothing (2009), written after the death of his little daughter Miriam—one of the books which shed light on the path before me; so too did Kerry Hardie’s 2014 volume, The Zebra Stood in the Night, which contains a series of starkly empowering poems as well as an extended reflection on grief, written following the sudden death of her youngest brother Patrick. Among this set of books which speak most clearly to loss, stands Denise Riley’s Say Something Back (2016), including poems composed after the sudden death of her son from a heart condition.
Jean Valentine’s luminous final volume, Shirt in Heaven (2015), sits in a special category for me—a volume in which loss is educed with a unique clarity, and the channel to its other side tracked. I have known Jean since I had the great good fortune to be a member of a poetry workshop she led in Kilkenny in the early ‘90s; Jean honored the memory of our daughter by dedicating Shirt in Heaven to her. Since Jean herself has now passed away, just after Christmas 2020, her words once more are tapping at my shoulder: “I thought I’d have to listen, hard. / […] / But nothing from you stopped.” (“Hospice”).
Finally, I include in this set of material that has made a difference in these years, more or less every book written by my fellow Tipperary poet, Michael Coady—a friend and mentor since I first began to try to write with any level of seriousness in the mid-1980s. Michael’s work communicates the mysteries of human connection across space and time with unique range and flexibility; indeed, Bernard, I think Michael’s poetry is transmitted on a wavelength very close on the dial to that of your own work. Michael wrote to me shortly after Emily’s death, and for months thereafter, I never left the house without his letter in my bag. It included the following lines, which I quote here (with Michael’s permission), in hope that they may offer even a trace of the comfort they gave me, to any other parent in our position: “You both gave Emily your deepest love and life. It hasn’t gone away: it can’t go away. Trust that it is returned to both of you still, perfectly and fully formed, across the dark abyss of this world’s loss and pain.” These words signal something far beyond resignation: hope.
I’ll use this cue to come back at last now, to answer some of your more specific inquiries in the question above—my apologies for the length of my answer! I admire the defiance of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “I am not resigned”—its claiming of the right to be angry in the face of death. This poem appeases something fundamental in reclaiming for those who grieve, their own pure force in the face of the powerlessness imposed on them by virtue of their proximity to death. It also resists the implicit demand to pretend things are better than they are, often applied by those whose own fear of loss and hence their desire for its quick solution, overcomes their willingness to walk a bit of the way with another human being going though grief. But you are right, the spirit of “I am not resigned” is not where the center of my own energy has been in response to the loss of my daughter. I can only speak for myself in such matters, but the artworks to which I have turned for my most basic sustenance are those which attend directly to what I now recognize as three driving preoccupations after Emily died: hope for her ongoing life, sadness, and the search to find her again.
The poems that speak to me of hope that the one who has gone remains in the fullness of life were initially confined to those which I could relate to Emily and her particular personality and spirit—such life as that communicated in John Gillespie Magee’s “High Flight (An Airman’s Ecstasy)”: “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth / And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.” (How utterly different is this, compared to the chilly equanimity conveyed in Yeats’s “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death,” which I now think may dramatize the experience of grief itself rather than anticipated death per se). I also sought out poems expressing my own urgency of hope that the one who has died will be minded, wherever they are now. Such hope is beautifully registered in “An Phaidir Gheal / The Bright Prayer” (translated by Thomas Kinsella):
Cá luífidh tú anocht?
Idir Muire is a Mac,
idir Bríd is a brat,
idir Colmcille is a sciath,
idir Dia is a lámh dheas.
Where will you lie tonight?
Between Mary and her Son,
between Bridget and her cloak,
between Colm Cille and his shield,
between God and His right hand.
A similar prayer is offered in part of Mark Twain’s epitaph to his daughter, which we came across in the first few weeks after Emily’s passing: “Warm summer sun, / Shine kindly here, / Warm southern wind, / Blow softly here. / Green sod above, / Lie light, lie light. / Good night, dear heart; / Good night, good night.”
Secondly, and crucially, I needed poems which expressed the reality of the gaping space which the dead leave behind them. In the early days, I found frightening the sinkhole of despair so directly delineated in some of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems: “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief.” But I registered the strangely incontestable comfort offered by beauty of image and expression, in other poems centered on grief’s despair, such as in D.H. Lawrence’s “Grey Evening”: “When you went, how was it you carried with you / My missal book of fine, flamboyant hours?” Other poems worked for me because they simply spoke directly to the void I knew, such as H.D.’s “’Never more will the wind’”: “Never more will the wind / cherish you again, / never more will the rain.” … “Like a bird out of our hand, / like a light out of our heart, / you are gone.”
Finally, I honed in on those poems which mapped my own quest for ways to bridge the gap between the living and the dead—or to believe in the promise that it can be bridged—in any form whatsoever. For example, the poem to which I turned immediately after Emily’s death was Eavan Boland’s “Tree of Life”—we quoted its final lines in our daughter’s funeral notice, and since then I have found many ways of avoiding teaching it in my many college classes on Boland: it remains for me a kind of sacred text. In the early days, Bernard, you yourself sent me a portion of Jane Draycott’s translation of the Middle English Pearl, which likewise spoke both to where I was and where I wanted to be:
The comfort of Christ called out to me
but still I wrestled in wilful sorrow.
Then the power and perfume of those flowers
filled up my head and felled me, slipped me
into sudden sleep in the place
where she lay beneath me. My girl.
Another poem posted to me out of the blue in those early days which became a lifeline, was e.e. cummings’ “I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart)”: “(anywhere / I go, you go, my dear; and whatever is done / by only me is your doing, my darling)”. This poem, for me, epitomizes art’s power to console: “(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud / and sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows / higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)”. Yet I also needed the tougher side of this same promise—the recognition of the reality of absence on which it is founded, as expressed so well in Theodore Roethke’s “She”: “I think the dead are tender. Shall we kiss? — / My lady laughs, delighting in what is.”
In this same vein, I needed the kind of briskness offered in the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi’s challenge to those who mourn, his lines being as applicable to this constituency as to that of people facing their own death: “Why hold on to just one life / till it is filthy and threadbare? / The sun dies eternally / and wastes a thousand lives each instant. / God has decreed a life for you / and He will give another / then another and another.” In a gentler form of this same challenge, there were poems which witnessed to the fact that just getting through a day, or an hour, was in itself enough. Among these, is Michael Hartnett’s “The Night Before Patricia’s Funeral”: “How goes the night, boy? / The moon is down […]”
How goes the night? Well—poems can offer strange illuminations in its midst… Nine months or so after Emily died, I heard Carol Ann Duffy reading her poem, “Water” (from her collection The Bees, 2011), about bringing a cup of water to her dying mother and remembering how her mother would bring a drink to her as a child, just as the speaker now does for her own daughter so as to help the child to go back to sleep. Sitting in that crowded auditorium, the poem wrenched me—“Water. / What a mother brings / through darkness still / to her parched daughter”—for it went straight to the heart of what could never again be for me in this world, and yet which somehow, also, seemed to be still for me: these final lines absolutely expressed what I most wanted to do in the world… I can’t explain it. I will never forget Carol Ann’s kindness when, after the reading, I asked her to sign the page of the book on which this poem was printed.
Now, having opened and closed The Bees, I’ll maybe also close off on this question, by borrowing from a Dickinson poem I love:
It’s all I have to bring today—
This, and my heart beside—
This, and my heart, and all the fields—
And all the meadows wide—
Be sure you count—should I forget
Some one the sum could tell—
This, and my heart, and all the Bees
Which in the Clover Dwell.
BO’D: In The Magpie and the Child, the emergence of the female is central but seen with anxiety, isn’t it: “CC” crying at the idea that those curves mean her, like the “long curved half-circle of bone” from which Eve is formed. Is the fact that the principal actors throughout the book are female a foreshadowing of the daughter of the Threnodies? In that way there seems to be a prehistory of the child which balances what you have said about the continuity of living after the loss of Emily.
CC: The idea of an intergenerational chain of women of which Emily is part is one I find very comforting. This is all the more the case, since the deaths in the years since my daughter died of her four grandparents along with four of her grandaunts and a granduncle, as well as that of our close friend, the gifted Kilkenny teacher Gobnait Uí Mhurchú (memorialized in “our friend has dreamt”). It very much pleases me that you suggest the women in my book foreshadow the figure of my daughter, though perhaps I might put it slightly differently—I hope that in these poems, as certainly in her life, they have lit her way.
I’m very struck by the connection you make between the two poems in which curve shapes explicitly appear! This points me to the fact that gender identity is an area of tension in some of my poems of origin and growth. Yes, even as a child, I think there was some anxiety there—an intuiting that the systems of cultural representation which my ordinary education required, were oriented towards designating the female as secondary. Resistance to this has meant turning around and around those elements of language through which one is learning to know oneself—redirecting one’s initials, so to speak. But many of my educators also led me in doing just this. My father used exhort us, “Make a shape!”—meaning we should get going at the work that was needed and do what we had to for ourselves. In this sense—the spur to (re)make a shape—these poems owe a tremendous debt to him too.
BO’D: On such matters as they relate to predecessors in poetry, your most striking explicit recognition is of what you call Austin Clarke’s masterpiece “Martha Blake at Fifty-One” in your poem “Martha Blake Reprieved.” Clarke’s version of religious observance is a relentlessly desolate view of piety (isn’t it?). In what way is she “reprieved” in your poem? I wondered what view of religious observance your poem enshrined? What is “that other energy I speak of”?
CC: In this poem, I wanted to start at the point at which Clarke left off his exploration of Martha Blake’s understanding of her own situation—famously, at the moment he reports “her last breath” as “disappointed.” In the light of the faith she professed, I wanted to imaginatively extend her understanding to what I see as its next logical position. Her body in its distress having refused Martha’s culturally-learned exclusion of the flesh, it seems to me that that the true promise of Christ must then surely intervene, to show Martha Blake beyond all doubt that her body never was excluded in Jesus’s conception and deliverance of salvation, but rather, that in its sickness and in its health alike, her body remains intimately bound up with her spirit’s deliverance. In other words, I wrote this poem because I think that Clarke’s poem invites us beyond its own dead end.
As for the kind of religious observance my own poem may enshrine—I think the reader is best off considering that for themselves, insofar as this or any other piece may prompt them to do so. On your final question here—the energy in the church on the day of my daughter’s funeral, was love.
BO’D: This idea of a life finding new forms of completion, brings me back to the relationship between the two parts of The Magpie and the Child, and the child that joins them. The blurb to the book says it begins “in a sort of pre-explanation of events before they were events.” In this way, the earlier poems are a kind of imagined recall of childhood, aren’t they: “if there wasn’t such a day there could have been.” I wondered how you chose these poems here and whether the poems of Part Two were influential on the representation of your own childhood. Though the poet’s voice is in the first person, the figure of “the brown-headed child” is seen from the distance now.
CC: The events recorded in the poems of my own childhood in Part One verifiably happened, at least in broad outline—I’m lucky enough to have siblings with whom I shared them and still share the memories. Even though we may individually or collectively mis-remember parts of what we experienced back then, this doesn’t invalidate the truth of what we recall. Yes, I selected the poems of Part One knowing that the book’s second half would be comprised of the Threnodies, and so the earlier material was gathered and organized with this in mind. The Threnodies have probably influenced the Part One grouping as a whole tonally, as it appears now in the book. When I look at these earlier poems now, I see a pattern of attempts to ground myself in various places or modes of being which could never—neither then nor now—be secure. As such, these pieces retrospectively anticipate what was to happen when my child died. Yet I suspect that the reason many of them still speak to me, is because they reflect earlier vital discoveries that such instability can itself turn out to be a reliable way forwards—perhaps because in the end, we’ve no real choice in the matter.
Catriona Clutterbuck grew up in a farming family in County Tipperary, close to the area where she now lives. She worked as a primary school teacher from the mid-1980s to the early ’90s, before completing postgraduate studies in the University of Oxford. Her chapbook, Ghosts in my Heels (South Tipperary Arts Centre and Start magazine), was published in 2005. She was the winner of the 1995 Richard Ellmann Prize (in association with Oxford Poetry) and her work was selected for Poetry Ireland Introductions Readings in 2006. She teaches Irish literature at University College Dublin.
The Magpie and the Child was published March 1st, 2021.