Known as “Poet of the Clay”, Jack Clemo (1916–1994) is a British poet who expressed the unique landscape of his native Cornwall, and his personal vision of Christian faith. He saw the scarred landscape of clay-pits and moulded dumps of white sand waste, where he grew up, as representative of the fall. The industrial language of the china clay mines fills his poems.
His formal schooling ended at age 13 when he began to lose his eyesight. He became deaf at about age twenty, and eventually — nineteen years later — became blind. These problems are not the focus of his writing, although he says in his poem “The Excavator”:
-------------And so I am awake:
-------------No more a man who sees
-------------Colour in flowers or hears from birds a song,
-------------Or dares to worship where the throng
-------------Seek Beauty and its old idolatries.
He felt himself to be an outcast throughout his life, because of his disabilities and because of his nonconformist religious views. According to Elizabeth Jennings he was truly “a visionary poet”.
Christ in the Clay-pit
Why should I find Him here
And not in a church, nor yet
Where Nature heaves a breast like Olivet
Against the stars? I peer
Upon His footsteps in this quarried mud;
I see His blood
In rusty stains on pit-props, waggon-frames
Bristling with nails, not leaves. There were no leaves
Upon his chosen Tree,
No parasitic flowering over shames
of Eden's primal infidelity.
Just splintered wood and nails
Were fairest blossoming for him who speaks
Where mica-silt outbreaks
Like water from the side of his own clay
In that strange day
When He was pierced. Here still the earth-face pales
And rends in earhquake roarings of a blast
With tainter rock outcast
While fields and woods lie dreaming yet of peace
‘Twixt God and his creation, or release
From potent wrath — a faith that waxes bold
In churches nestling snugly in the fold
Of scented hillsides where mild shadows brood.
The dark and stubborn mood
Of him whose feet are bare upon this mire,
And in the furnace fire
Which hardens all the clay that has escaped,
Would not be understood
By worshippers of beauty toned and shaped
To flower or hymn. I know their facile praise
False to the heart of me, which like this pit
Must still be disembowelled of Nature’s stain,
And rendered fit
By violent mouldings through the tunnelled ways
Of all he would regain.
Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca