‘Neighbours’ is about the Chernobyl disaster and how it affected, not just Ukraine but the rest of Europe as well. The poem seems quite negative and solemn and draws on references to Pandora’s box to help make its point, but it also offers a ray of light. It references glasnost which was a Russian initiative put in place by then Russian prime minister Mikhail Gorbachev in order that Russia is more clear with its secrets, so as to not cover up mistakes that were made during the Chernobyl disaster. In turn, this would make Europe a safer place. This was seen by many in the west as a move to make Russia more part of the European community as relations between Russia and the rest of Europe had often been quite strained.
Form and Tone
‘Neighbours’ is written in eight stanzas the first three are all three lines long. This is known as a triad and is quite a traditional form in Welsh poetry. Clarke doesn’t use a repetitive rhyming pattern in this poem. The tone of the poem is sad and at times horrific but with a hopeful undercurrent. She uses romanticism in Neighbours, drawing on nature to help emphasize the effects of the Chernobyl disaster, not just on Ukraine but on the rest of Europe.
You can listen to Neighbours here.
Analysis of Neighbours
That spring was late. We watched the sky
Birds were late to pair. Crows drank from the lamb’s eye.
This opening stanza of ‘Neighbours’ is very bleak, the line about the spring being late is quite poetic. Spring is associated with Easter and therefore re-birth. Saying it arrived late could be construed as quite poignant. Studying the weather charts for isobars could be used to describe any nations surrounding Ukraine nervously checking they wouldn’t receive the fallout from the Chernobyl blast. Lambs are also associated with Easter and god who are referred to as the lamb. The lamb in this stanza has a crow drink from its eye. This graphic imagery is very striking and shocks the reader into realizing the apocalyptic impact of the disaster.
Over Finland small birds fell: song-thrushes
migrating warblers, nightingales.
Here Gillian Clarke invokes nature, much in the style of the Romantic poets. The birds represent different nationalities and as we see there is a variety of them being affected.
Wing-beats failed over fjords, each lung a sip of gall.
Milk was spilt in Poland. Each quarrel
In the third stanza of ‘Neighbours’, we see here an example of the brutal imagery that Clarke has used. We have the images of birds failing to be able to fly over Finland and their lungs filling with bile. A grotesque and striking image that really helps to hammer home the impact of Chernobyl.
the blowback from some old story,
brought by the wind out of its box of sorrows.
In this stanza, the narrator makes a nod to the legend of Pandora’s box. In this ancient legend, Pandora was given a box (although originally this was a jar) and told never to open it. She did and released all of the stresses and strifes, illnesses, and plagues that terrorize mankind. She managed to close the box and one thing remained within the box – hope. This “nod” to the Greek legend is probably used to highlight the devastating effects of the Chernobyl disaster and the hope that remains in box could well be a metaphor for neighbouring countries coming together to work as a harmonious unit.
This spring a lamb sips caesium on a Welsh hill.
takes into her blood the poisoned arrow.
Once again we see Clarke invoke the image of the lamb. Remembering its significance as a Christian symbol and how it represents a rebirth and a new beginning it is harrowing to think of it sipping caesium, which is a highly radioactive material. Of course, what is being referred to here is acid rain and it is likened to a poisoned arrow. The imagery shows a child drinking the acid rain. Once again this is deliberate as a child would be innocent and makes for a more striking, harrowing image.
Now we are all neighbourly, each little town
with the burnt firemen, the child on the Moscow train.
The narrator suggests that this travesty has affected so much of Europe that it has bought it together. This stanza solidifies the concept by suggesting all of the towns throughout Europe are now neighbours because they have shared and endured common experiences. It points to the firemen that lost their lives trying to put out fires in the wake of the accident and point out even the Russians are now part of the European brotherhood, united by tragedy. The use of the phrase twinned helps to support the idea that Europe is now one.
In the democracy of the virus and the toxin
Glasnost. Golau glas. A first break of blue.
The very first line of this stanza introduces a fascinating concept: the idea that viruses and toxins, like he ones spread following Chernobyl are representative of a democracy. In many ways this is a more pure democracy then any others that exist. It doesn’t discriminate against age, gender, nationality. A virus will strike down anybody who is unfortunate enough to come into contact with it. In the final two lines of this stanza it says “we”, the pronoun use is very deliberate. The “we” it is referring to is a united Europe. The mention of waiting for a spring migration references the first stanza where it says that spring came late. The waiting is Europe waiting for some good news, waiting for its silver lining. Just as at the start of ‘Neighbours’, nature, more specifically birds are used.
Glasnost. Golau glas. A first break of blue.
In stanza eight of ‘Neighbours’, we see a nice comparison as the Russian word ‘Glasnost’ and the welsh word ‘Goloau glas’ appear side by side. Glasnost means openness and it is through the Russian government being less protective over its secrets that there is a sense of hope for neighbouring countries to work together. Remember Gorbachev worked to undo a lot of the negative stereotypes surrounding Russian politicians as perceived by the Western world, including ending the cold war. Golau Glas is blue light and invokes an image of sunlight through clouds. This entire line is supposed to signify hope for the future.
About Gillian Clarke
Gillian Clarke, born in 1937, is a Welsh poet who holds the distinction of being Wales’ national poet. Following leaving university she spent a year working with the BBC before working as an English teacher. Her poetry, such as ‘Neighbours’, is well studied throughout the UK appearing on the syllabus for GCSES and A-levels. Amongst her many honours is the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. She is a prolific writer with no less than 15 books to her name. She still writes although her greatest successes were obtained during the eighties.