The Porcelain Cliff

The Porcelain Cliff
after The White Road, Edmund De Waal

                             for Aviva


             When clay makes something for itself
             it goes for a cliff just slightly to scale
             no leaping carp or calligraphic crane. 

             No arch of melting cobalt, 
             no drench of cobalt rain. In a fairy-tale, 
             a boy squeezed a pebble

             until it ran milk. 
             Traverse this snowpack and the details blur
             wrists crawling with midges

             as you clamber 
             over its fat, white belly, 
             treading out the whey.


         Count to sixty. 

         Into the opposite of ribs and spurs,
         slip crawls secretly.

         Dear mud trickles into blind caves, 
         climbing the growing ladders of itself,
         a growth spurt losing momentum.

         This is how we entertain our Shadow.
         How stone moves in to stake a claim in the valley
         a silk invasion, oblique, polite 

         as the please and thankyou 
         of stalagmite and stalactite –
         until the mould is full as an egg.


         Is the wind fat with rain? Count fifty 
         if it comes from the North
         with the North's terrible thirst, a prospector's wind 
         a dry blade whetted 
         with the scent of walrus. 

         It licks the mould.
         The thirsty plaster sucks up slip.
         The clay is fattening the form

         soft keys rusting in every lock,
         light growing in every shadow.

         Now with a Jersey slosh,
         milkmaid it into the bucket.

         Let the wind lick dry the mould.

         Already positive
         winces from negative
         a thin skin tearing

         like a turtle's egg


         The burn runs right off the peat-hill
         and under the porcelain cliff.

         Even when there hasn't been rain
         it runs fast and strong and brown and deep
         reliable as a vein

         clearing its throat 

         Dust is curious.
         Dust is thirsty.

         Dust is watching you outside
         and in. 
         It silts your broken tributaries – lifeline and loveline –
         wanting to plus up every minus, 
         clothing your lung-tree with brittle bark, 
         putting weight on the apples
         of your alveoli, 

         doing what it is made to do
         quenching its thirst

         filling a form.


Dear Foreman, 
Thanks for turning the water off. Instead 
of swallowing the tapeworm of the snowy M6 
I too opened a cave of making with just two little hooks
painted white to keep bad guys
out at night and dreams.

Dentists you scrape and vibrate
the open mouth of the side of the house 
Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba A-
MEr-ica singing 
in speech like a Northerner, like a silty river 'will you do me a favour?
gonna get me some nails?'

Two crows peer through the skylight putting me
in mind of audience. A bang like a drum
reveals you're in the hall, calling Hellowww –

Hellowww you've cracked us open like an old lion's mouth
and I have opened something too. 

You're carrying bricks, beams, a tune, a joke.
I a pail of slip, heavy as a house.

We are both beginning to make something you
a lion-tamer prising
open the old house's jaws


          Clay ties itself
          in knots for you. 

          Pots as thick as a hangover.

          Migraine bowls that spin and ring. 

          Clay has no idea 
          what it's making. 

          Innocent of commission, 
          it knuckles down
          to knead itself.

          From clay we learn to lose our train of thought
          in satin whirlpools' marbling weight
          – what was I saying?

          with our bare hand
          stirring –


       The form drops from its mould when it's ripe,
       like a fruit faithful

       to every damage 
       done, each scratch a raised scar
       each bubblet of air a rash
       or pimple. 

       The impression is faithful.
       Bruised like the ur-apple in a golden sleeve of ice.

       Smooth plunge into the vortex of the stem
       the place it ends and begins again –

       crush each like a turtle's egg
       melt stone into the milk it's made of.
Jen Hadfield

Copyright © Jen Hadfield, 2018. All rights reserved.

Jen Hadfield

Jen Hadfield's second collection, Nigh-No-Place, won the 2008 T. S. Eliot Prize. With family in Canada and England and a deep love of her adopted home in Shetland,  it is perhaps no surprise that her writing is often drawn to the contradictions of travel and home, the music of voices, and the importance of land and place. Her third collection, Byssus, was published by Picador in 2014.

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About The Porcelain Cliff

This poem was written as part of 'The Blue Crevasse' project, which marks the centenary of W.S. Graham in 2018. The image of a blue crevasse famously appears in W.S. Graham’s poem ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’, and the author’s estate welcomed the idea of creating a similar metaphorical space where admirers of the poet might, in a sense, be lowered for a month’s solitary ‘residency’.