A poet I have been particularly fond of over the years is Jean Earle. Born in 1909 and brought up in the Rhondda Valley in South Wales, she began writing poetry as a young women, but then wrote very little until she was in her sixties, publishing several volumes between A Trial of Strength (1980) and The Bed of Memory (2001). She died in 2002. The artlessness of her ‘naïve’ style belies a sophisticated use of imagery and reference that also characterises her work. One of her collections, Visiting Light (1987), provides a theme for many interpretations of her work as a poetry of light. Here, from that collection, is an extract from ‘The Woollen Mill’
Down the mill walls, light translated water,
The roaring silver
Over the wheel, that ground out light – and light –
Danced out of ancient cogs
From when they were young wood.
Such bright looking hurt …
When someone passed
I turned my head for relief of his shadow.
But as the final line of that extract also suggests, she was very conscious too of darkness and images of shadows also recur frequently in her work. In ‘Devil’s Blackberries’. for instance, where “Late pickers – cut off from sunset/In a ditch of brambles -/From earthed heels let fly/Their lengthening shadows” or the poem ‘Shadowlands’ where she declares herself “Obsessed by shadows …”.
For many years she worked as a secretary in the Bishop’s Palace at Abergwili near Carmarthen. In the poem ‘Walking Home’ she writes of her experiences there. Here is the final third of the poem:
My passing means no more
Than the shadows of firs
Brushing out a cold evening coming.
Fir shadow too, in the brown room,
Very sweet all day. One must ignore it
For the work’s sake. But afterwards what harm
If the shadow perceive a sudden flush
Between unhuman things …
The oak, the typewriter
In its business mask.
Were not its steely vitals drawn
Native as oak, from the hot earth?
A thousand blackbirds roost
In the drive bushes. Garden and churchyard
Are one broad round, steeped in ceremonial
Long before Christ. Often I feel the rites
Quilling like blackbirds …
This is an old, holy place,
Waging perpetual wars. I side with them –
But am unsure under what rising powers
I walk home.
Jean Earle reportedly communicated to an enquirer just before she died that “I believe I am a Christian”. Certainly she wrote about Light both directly and metaphorically in a way that suggests she conceptualised it in accordance with Christian belief. But her awareness of darkness and her uncertainty about those “rising powers” in the shadows also suggests that she sensed another dimension to the religious life.