John Clegg’s Antler

© Image by Alice Mullen

 
 
John Clegg grew up in Cambridge and studies at Durham University, where he is working towards a PhD on the Eastern European context of contemporary English poetry. Some of his poems feature in The Salt Book of Younger Poets and Best British Poetry 2012. His first collection, Antler, is published by Salt.
 
 
 
  
 
 
“The poems in Antler stalk their quarry over difficult ground. Prehistoric landscapes blend with genuine and imaginary anthropology; the real world becomes distorted through the dark mirrors of folktale and myth; fraudsters, liars, and con-men lurk perpetually in the shadows. This panorama is emotional, too, most vividly in the collection’s centrepiece: the sequence ‘Vaisala and Sinuhe’, charting an astronomy professor’s infatuation with one of his postgraduate students, who may or may not be a werewolf. Pared-down, playful and often very funny, Clegg’s poetry keeps faith with what is tactile and tangible (moss, leather, bone), distilling plainspoken diction, luminous imagery and a unique worldview into lines which remain in the head for a long while after the book has been closed.”
 
 
 
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“John Clegg’s ludic mythology concerns things of mystery and the mystery of things, in language that is lucid yet uncanny. Fact jostles with fantasy and fable with fib, to conjure worlds recognizable but just out of reach, teasing, beckoning. Here is the emergence of a voice already assured but bewitchingly original.”
 
– Gareth Reeves
 
 
 
“Along with an affinity for antlers, ivory, and leather, Clegg shows a clear dictation of syntax that bridles none of his poetry’s emotional or surreal qualities.”
 
– Jerry Brunoe
 
 
 
“I must have been waiting for a poet to fuse deep sincerity and irony, craft and process, the surreal and the historical, because I read this twice in one sitting, fizzing with jealousy. Clegg’s poetry is a must. And while he may be well-versed in the cutting edge of literary theory, he’s even better versed in the classics. Beautifully crafted utterly contemporary. His work makes me feel the way I felt when I first read the New York School, or tasted pistachio flavour icecream, or the house-lights dimmed.”
 
– Luke Kennard
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Antler
 
 
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.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Moss
 
 
We feared the moss. We hollowed out
our ancestors and packed them with it,
left them smouldering in bark canoes.
On terminal moraines we blessed the moss
as herald of the thaw. Our children
got down on their knees to kiss it.
Kind moss insulated our pagodas,
bedlinened the herder on high pasture,
kindled grubby smoke for sacred visions.
We combed the moss. Our mosseries
were envied by the Emperor himself.
Spore cases, every size and colour, hung
like fireworks. We bred moss patiently,
too subtle work for human lifespans.
In the war we mulched the telegrams
demanding anaesthetic or poison moss.
Our holy valley stayed unoccupied.
Today, the only sound above a whisper
is the meal-gong. I meditate at night
on whether we are really growing moss.
Our mystics say the moss is growing us.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Piltdown
 
 
Your poems have to lie. I had a choice.
The skull I’d forked out half a fortune for
was worthless sarawak orangutan,
not caveman from the Downs: I’d been half-cut
on whiskey, paid in cash and woken up
to find it straw-wrapped in a packing crate,
receipt attached. A showman’s pet
two hundred years old, maybe? Chips of gloss
were peeling off the cranium: a con,
a flimflam. I’d been made a mark
 
and though the man who sold it was long gone
I saw another way to get revenge.
The jawbone rattled loosely on its hinge
when I unhooked it, pried away the teeth
and dug through my display case for a vial
of fossil fangs: that was the turning point.
I laid them out like watchgears on black velvet,
pared the canines with a needle-file
and blunted the incisors. Grey dust shone.
Its human half came from the family vault.
 
Some folk believe that when God made the hills
he planted fossils as a test of faith.
That’s not far wrong. The forger builds a world:
a present and a long past of his own.
The conman who fobbed off a monkey skull
on me had mentioned Piltdown. That was where
I had picked to bring his artless lie to life,
to sculpt a kind of truth that would endure
from what he’d told me, what I could flesh out.
I guess the lying art was in my bones.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Spell for an Orchard
 
 
Before the universe, there was the orchard.
The orchard is the universe’s midpoint.
Each lost city was modelled on the orchard.
All myth and history started in the orchard.
Our apples banged the ground and that was thunder.
Our trees put down long roots and they were rivers.
Moss grew around the bark, and that was forest.
 
In the forest, two-legged insects chittered.
They sucked on sap and it was blossom honey.
They pared spears from torn splinters.
They saw a sparrow which they thought was God.
The real god is hidden in the orchard.
The rat behind the warehouse is the god of rats.
The wasp drowned in the barrel is the god of wasps.
 
The universe will not outlive the orchard.
The universe is larger than the orchard.
Larger is irrelevant. The orchard is better.
Our fruit dislodged the baby teeth of kings.
Our cider vinegar dissolved their crowns.
Our apples hang among the leaves like lanterns.
Now choose and twist. Each one is worth a world.
 
You dreamed that you were standing in the orchard.
Your lover said one word, and that was orchard.
You never found the right key for the orchard.
Your house lay just a little past the orchard.
You lay on moss, your legs spread, in the orchard.
You breathed the ripened air around the apple.
That brooch you lost, you lost it in the orchard.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Ramon Sije
 
after Miguel Hernendez
 
 
Leave me alone with just this grief
and grave and blank expanse of sky.
Your death’s more real than my life.
 
I’m pinned up like a butterfly,
wings beating. Leave me. Let me work.
Of course no-one can tell me why
 
you didn’t fight: a quiet jerk
on death’s leash and along you went.
My own dog would have gone berserk.
 
I won’t forgive that witty gent
upstairs, or Life and Death his goons,
or Earth his lapsed experiment.
 
I blow up storm-clouds like balloons
and axe-blades clatter at my feet.
Some orbit round my head as moons.
 
I’ll eat his planet bite by bite
I’ll flense the mantle from the core
I’ll thresh the trees like they were wheat
 
if you don’t speak. Our words before
are weightless now. You were a leaf.
Come back as wind. Break down the door.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Cosmos
 
 
Trade spilt across the night. We swapped
our ermine pelts for the fermented horse-
milk we called kumis, they called kuomoss.
Too cold for dancing. Mela siphoned ash
from someone’s firepit to sketch a map
of where was safe to ford the frozen river.
Our languages were halves of a split flint:
they interlocked, but barely trespassed.
Like every other year, we shared tent-space
and fed the stove and spoke alternate toasts,
 
and now we can’t explain the strange offence
they took, how while we slept they left
and saddled shivering horses in the dark.
Next morning, hoofprints led us to a half-
healed breach between the riverbanks;
a tumble into emptiness, a stillbirth.
We felt their words unravelling from ours
and headed bank to camp to find the kumis
turned, stinking of vinegar and sperm.
Poured out, it left a star-chart in the skins.
 
 
 
 
from Antler (Salt Publishing, 2012).
 
Order Antler.
 
 
 
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