Jeanette Lynes is an old friend and amazing poet, also an amazing novelist. We met eons ago when I was on an east coast (Canada) reading tour and she was deputized to be my minder (sorry, I mean host) at Mount Allison University. Now, these many years later, she coordinates the new MFA in Writing Program at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon (where I once, in another lifetime, worked on the newspaper). The poems here presented are absolutely fascinating, both poetically and in their subject matter — Jeanette channels the 19th century English working class poet and madman John Clare who was the son of a farm labourer, a contemporary of Keats, and ended up dying in a lunatic asylum (what they called them in those days). This is limned beautifully in the inset bio note on the first poem below — real wife/imaginary wife. Clare even imagined he was really William Shakespeare. But what a subject. A mad poet is a poet to the 2nd power, a poet squared, a stance that allows Jeanette’s own imagination loose on the page in spectacular ways.
Unwritten Dictionary of Biography Entry:
John Clare, Farmer, Poet-Rock-Star
The Valdy of his day, play him
a nightingale song or don’t play
him no song at all. Always on tour,
the people perpetually confused:
‘Is he still around? I thought he
was dead’. A walking house-party.
Getting down with the folk yet
ultimate loner, deuce of a paradox.
His village’s Stompin’ Tom
with a more muted stomp
due to lousy boots and fear of
fritting the birds. A one-man Byrds,
everything turn turn turned.
The original acoustic act that never
went electric. Collector of local songs.
Enthusiast. The Townes Van Zandt
of his era (minus the oil money);
Clare’s advice for Townes
might have been: after the ale
don’t just climb the rock, be the rock.
Voice of the quarry. Lamenter. Dirty
Realist (don’t let all the pretty flowers
fool you). The Steve Earl of his parish.
Writer-in-residence of his asylum.
Follower of wild things that turn
turn turn. Follower of Byron
in a spinning world where
somehow one thing remains
strung to another: day follows
night, Sancho squires Quixote,
Pokey trails the pragmatic
flares of Gumby’s legs,
Pancho shadows Lefty, death,
life, and John Clare’s only
train ride carried his body
from the cuckoo’s nest
back home to Helpston.
Song for His Country
The stream – deemed outlaw – buried.
Blooming laburnums still drop golden ropes –
gallows for moles. Owls –
file under Pagan – the badger, Infidel.
[Yet much resists enclosure.]
Wildflowers never will
bend to some landlord’s bill.
They follow their own school.
He is more than the sum of his outrage;
He loves his country with constraint
and hard labor – each hawthorn
pruned for a few pence, every turnip field
hoed, all those hedge-gang shifts
‘til the whistle blows and he loves
a little less. And sleeps. And dreams
in rows, earth ranked, owls defiled.
He may as well wear militia buttons.
Another Brush With Keats
Still no Keats, though close –
the doctor of Keats
plans to study my head.
To have the same medic (though not
the same ailment)
The first time I did not
meet Keats, he scribbled an address
(not mine) on one of my letters.
To Keats it was simply
scrap paper. To have the same
publisher as Keats
The second time I did not meet
Keats he was dying though sent
his opinion of my poems –
it should not take twenty lines
to describe the grass
(in so many words).
SPACESPACE The dying,
I reckon, do not have that kind
of time. The grass, I suppose
must be grass and be
quick about it.
Because Keats was dying I wished
him well at the wishing well
near Swordy Well. Had he not been
dying I might have written –
quizzed him on the nesting habits
of his nightingale and must
everything be so Grecian and
to me it matters, the weave
and awn of grass, it matters.
Spokes; Or, the Edge of the World, A Theory
Where Glinton Steeple slips from sight
there the world stops. There must be more;
he sets out to locate the edge
of everything, to walk, his pocket
full of peas, a feather for a heart
to the horizon and back, through open
fields, commons, what the grid-builders
call waste grounds. He passes the last
standing willow, his old pin-and-thread
fishing spot, the laughing ghost-boys
with their proggling-sticks, his own ghost.
He has never seen a map. He walks
a crankled course, sometimes he soodles,
only him and the cuckoo flower.
He is careful not to climb trees (this never
turns out well). He’d like to witness
the grasses’ view. Three crows
signal the brink of everything.
The scene is familiar enough.
He turns back through fields akin
to the spokes of some great, ruined wheel –
not a grid like the mighty ones decreed –
rather, circle, spire, a rounding of home.
The Asylum Years: A Retrospective
Who was he?
Before he was a lunatic, a poet in brimful meadows, amid rushes, and fens.
Prior to his captivity: Extreme walker until the soles fell from his shoes onto the road to ruin, leaving him lame.
From the asylum he wrote his wife to come & fetch him away (“…all the peoples brains are turned the wrong way”) & remember him to the neighbors. Why he was shut up in there he did not know. He never felt better in his life.
As for poesy, he came to see the sonnet for what it was, yet another instance of enclosure.
In the end, “the best is nothing like a good cow.”
The asylum stood in a forest but green captivity is still captivity.
He left the forest in a hurry; he escaped. Walked, leaving his soles on the road.
For several days he lived on tobacco & grass & felt quite well. Why no one believed him he did not know. (Yet every clown in his village was a politician!) How his head got sewed back on after he lost it at the Battle of Waterloo he cannot remember. He considered it a miracle. Poets have long sought miracles in brimful meadows, amid rushes.
He was Byron. He was Shakespeare. He was. He wished someone might bring him a few flowers, that is the least they could do, or a good cow, the best.
Notes on the Poems
The first quote in “The Asylum Years: A Retrospective” is taken from The Letters of John Clare, Edited by J.W. and Anne Tibble. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951, page 299. The second quote comes from the same book, page 295.
— Jeanette Lynes
Jeanette Lynes is the author of six books of poetry and one novel. Her most recent collection of poems, Archive of the Undressed (Wolsak and Wynn, 2012) was shortlisted for two Saskatchewan Book Awards. A graduate of the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA in Writing, she is Coordinator of the MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan. She lives in Saskatoon, Canada.