Ordinary Time by Joseph Clancy. Gomer Press, 2000, ISBN 1-85902-739-3.
Reviewed by John Gimblett
It should come as no surprise to hear that after the passing of R.S. Thomas as
Wales' greatest living poet, that honour should arguably fall to an American who
just happens to live in Wales. Some time in the shadow of the dying embers of
the 20th century, it came to pass in the Principality that one was only 'Welsh' if
one happened to speak the Welsh language, regardless of one's history. So that
various writers (usually poets) moved across the border and settled here, learning
Welsh soon after, and by default instantly accruing Welshness.
Those people who were born and bred in Wales, but who never learned the
Welsh language, were labeled Anglo-Welsh, as if it was a disease. My argument
is always that a race of people are not defined by the language they speak; or
else, are there no such people as 'Americans' because they do not have a native
(sic) language? Or 'Australians'?
Which brings me to this volume by Joseph Clancy, whom I believe to be one of
the best poets working in Wales today, whether or not one considers him to be
Ordinary Time is written in three parts, the strongest of which is the first, "Days
of Grace," effectively a homily on being and having been. Optimistic in its overtly
contemplative sadness, it breathes contentedness through every pore and is a
thoroughly moving collection of poems.
From the second poem, "The Given Time," Clancy is at ease, and his words
seem to flow as if no effort whatsoever went into their conception. No, this isnt
a criticism: this is the work of a poet working at full-steam, of the poet as perfect
channel and engine for Poetry.
There is religion without the pretence of spirituality in Ordinary Time; instead,
religiosity stems from everyday existence and history. So Clancys naive and
optimistic view of Americas contribution to global civilisation in the poem "At
Gettysburg" comes as a surprise in the book. The only poem addressing History,
rather than his or his characters own histories (". . .Antithesis and metaphor /
Articulate a meaning for the place"), it is the weak link in "Days of Grace"
because one gets the feeling that Clancy, like all writers, writes best when he
writes about what he knows, which in this case is about people, rather than
However, the rest of this section of the book is faultless, with poems such as
"Death Notices" stripping down language as only an easeful poet does, describing
his mother in death with "Mouth gaping, like a fish on ice." Clancys common
thread is the passage of time, and its effect on the human condition. Though not
an overly philosophical or original viewpoint, his poems' immediacy of image
over idea works like hearing gorgeous music, and his Blakean formal dexterity
(internal rhyme, alliteration) is impressive:
Like grains of sand our queue streams through
its simulacrum of eternity.
("Christmas Market, Lincoln")
The long poem "Unselving," in the book's third section, is a discourse on the
"Purposeless purpose" of coming to grips with God and Truth, when the end
result is the same nonetheless: death and loneliness in "a universe / As empty
as her eyes." Its a sad poem, somewhere between Beckett and The Book of
Common Prayer. Thats a place you dont want to be, though its obvious that
Joseph Clancy has been there; you can read it to save yourself the fractious
nightmares being there in person would afford you.
Ordinary Time hits with its American-Welshness (or should that be "Welsh-
Americanness"?) by way of the almost Magritte-like, Edward Hopper painting
reproduced on the cover. The reader is made to open the book with that slight
unease that makes its contents all the more poignant for their comfort.
John Gimblett, a Welsh poet, has recently published work in Slope #7.