Still Life by Gillian Clarke is a poem that addresses a moment when Clarke and a friend were “polish[ing] brass” together, and while the event proved enjoyable, it was tainted with the knowledge that the togetherness was only temporary. This temporary quality is linked to an uncertain foundation that the companions had rested on prior to this “polish[ing]” as well as the anticipation of “separat[ion]” Clarke held for the future. These inclinations, however subtle, take this poem from a narrative about “polish[ing] brass” to almost a lament for the friendship that would soon fade like a “reflecti[on].” That future failing seems to be the main point of the poem. You can listen to the full poem here.
Still Life Analysis
Clarke does not mention who the person she “polish[ed] brass with” is, choosing instead to use a second person pronoun of “you” to refer to that person. As Clarke has noted that this particular poem is grounded in a true story, this concept is a hint that the poem has one particular reader in mind to convey its message. While the poem is for a more general population—otherwise, it could have been a note delivered to the “you” mentioned rather than a published poem—this “you” reference provides a tone for the friendship that is informal and connected enough for one-on-one dialogue.
Beyond this look into the friendship, more evidence can be found within these lines to reveal a more detailed look at what precisely the friendship was like. One concept that mirrors that friendship is the progression of specificity Clarke uses to describe the event as the lines progress. Initially, it is only referred to by a pronoun, “It,” that has no clear meaning for the reader until after the pronoun has been stated, meaning the reader must wait to figure out what “[i]t” is after the word happens. From there, the reference to the event is a bit clearer since Clarke refers to it as “polish[ing] brass.”
By the end of the fourth line, however, the clarity boosts further until a particular product name is used in connection to the process—“Brasso.” If used as a representation of this friendship, this shows a continual progress forward so that the friends grew more familiar with one another. This is particularly true when phrasing like “slightly gritty” and “in the sea, salty” are used to describe the process of the friendship’s growth since they show that there were still elements of the friendship that needed smoothing out—like water that is too “salty” to drink and a substance that is “gritty.”
This series of lines brings the reader along the journey of the strengthening of the friendship through phrases like “polished it,” “incredible honesty,” and “[d]elicately grew.” As a twist, though, these concepts are not as innocently bright as they would seem since they are always held back by some negative concept. For instance, the friendship was “polished,” but that “polish” took it from “the light-drowning [t]arnish of deceit.” This establishes a foundation for the friendship that is unstable and shaky since “deceit” existed to need to be “polished” away.
It also worth noting that the object that was doing this “polish[ing]” for the friendship was a “soft, torn rag.” While the “soft” detail makes it seem like a smooth and gentle process, the fact remains that the “rag” was “torn,” which indicates that even the tool used to smooth out and beautify the friendship was imperfect and damaged.
Essentially then, Clarke has depicted a setting where a friendship blossomed, but only from something unimpressive and through something tattered, and the grown friendship had a lessened feeling of solidity because of these combined concepts. Further evidence to support this conjecture are that the “honesty” grew in “[p]atterns,” which would indicate that certain areas were left uncovered where the “[p]atterns” didn’t reach, and that “pressure” was needed to “open” that “honesty.” All of these concepts add layers of error and fault to what would have otherwise seemed like a wonderful process of building a friendship.
The “[s]till-life” that was created is quite telling in regard to the friendship. The first insight it provides is that it was, in fact, a “[s]till-life.” There is no action taking place within this type of artwork, and focal points are often not unliving—like food. What this entails about the friendship is that Clarke is not looking at a broad view of the friendship’s timeline for her rationalization, but is instead focused on one specific moment. Even though she borrowed from the past and future to build her take on this one moment—such as commenting that the relationship had “deceit” to “polish” away—the main objective remains what she felt at this particular moment in time when she and her friend “polish[ed] brass” together. It was a moment in time, just like a “[s]till-life” work of art.
Another detail about this “[s]till-life” that was “made” is that it was “yellow-gold.” The reason why this is important is because of the nature of “yellow-gold.” Without question, it is the choice of “gold” that looks the most “gold[en],” as opposed to things like white “gold” or rose “gold,” so by appearance, a person would not be able to find a more fitting representation of “gold” to wear. However, this color of “gold” comes with faults, such as not being strong enough to form jewelry without the additions of other metals. In fact, even with those other metals, “yellow-gold” can be the easiest to damage of the possible representations of “gold.” Essentially, “yellow-gold” looks more connected to the refined idea of “gold,” but it is fragile.
If used as a representation of the friendship, which is fitting as this friendship has already been noted as faulted, this would indicate that at this moment in time, the connection between the companions was strong and lovely by appearance—as united as a friendship should be. Underneath, unfortunately, there were weak elements that would not have been seen with a casual glance into this one moment of “[s]till-life,” and this is potentially what made Clarke “sad.” She realized the insecure foundation the friendship rested upon, and that acknowledgement of weakness took away from her enjoyment. Her friend, on the other hand, did not pay attention to these faults that waited under the surface. Because of this, Clarke’s “sadness” “puzzled” her.
The “Indian goblet” can be seen as yet another representation of this friendship—a concept that is notable in the change in its temperature. It began with “illusory [h]eat” that “cooled” during the process of “polish[ing].” The first telling aspect of this description is that the “goblet” was never actually hot. Its “[h]eat,” was “illusory,” or not realistic. This in itself highlights a falseness of the “goblet” that can be paralleled with the friendship as that friendship has already been noted as having been built on unreliable qualities, or “illusory” foundations.
Furthermore, just as the “goblet” “cooled” during its “polish[ing]” treatment, the friendship relaxed into something more soothing during the process as well. For the “goblet,” this could be taken as a literal statement of temperature, but for the friendship, it represents the warmth that can be shared between the companions. This was the primary feeling of the event to any onlooker who saw this pair of companions getting along so well, but with a closer inspection, the truth of the friendship’s instability can be viewed. For evidence of this, the reader needs to look no further than the section concerning “the braille formality [o]f pattern” on the “goblet.” “[B]raille” is read by touch, not by sight, which indicates that the true meaning of the “polish[ing]” event must be analyzed by something deeper than sight.
With that deeper look at the “goblet,” things were “stylised,” as though designed by arrangement instead of an honest coming to be, and “each [o]bject remains cold, [s]eparate, only reflecting [t]he other’s warmth.” Through this word choice, Clarke wraps up the poem by illustrating why she was “sad” during the time spent with her friend. She was “sad,” basically, because the depth of the friendship did not extend deeply enough to unite the companions in any concrete way. Rather, the two were still “separate,” and their happiness was only a “reflecti[on]” of “[t]he other’s warmth.” A “reflecti[on]” is but a memory once the “reflecti[ve]” surface is out of sight, and this reveals that Clarke believed that once the two had gone their own ways, the “warmth” would be a memory.
To Clarke, the good of the moment was lined with grief in knowing that the strong connection would fade with time, particularly given the untrustworthy foundation on which the friendship was built.
About Gillian Clarke
A National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke was born in 1937, and she is the author of numerous poems as well as The Gathering. Her awards and notoriety are significant, making her a staple in the literary and academic worlds.