On a single evening when he was 17, the poet experienced his first great love — and his first great loss.
Essex Clay rekindles, expands, and gives a tragic resonance to subjects that have haunted the poet throughout his writing life, and which he wrote about in his prose memoir, In the Blood. In the first part of the poem, he tells the story of his mother’s riding accident, long unconsciousness, and slow death; in the second, he remembers the end of his father’s life; and in the third, he describes an encounter that deepens the poem’s tangled themes of loss and memory and retrieval.
Although the prevailing mood of the poem has a Tennysonian sweep and melancholy, its wealth of physical details and narrative momentum make it as compelling as a fast-paced novel: a settling of accounts which admits that final resolutions are impossible.
Here are the first few pages of Andrew Motion’s In the Blood. They offer an account of his mother’s accident that is similar to that in Part I of Essex Clay.
You might think you know how this poem-as-memoir is going to end, but you don’t. Not really. Essex Clay is to poetry as Fallingwater is to architecture: functional and elegant, with clean lines and deceptive simplicity. The poem opens on a particular memory — the last time the poet saw his mother before the accident that seriously wounded and eventually killed her — but its true subject is the fragile nature of memory itself.
Born in London and raised in Stisted, Essex, Andrew Motion is the author of many books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. His poetry collections include Essex Clay, Randomly Moving Particles, Coming in to Land: Selected Poems 1975-2015, The Customs House, The Cinder Path, and Public Property. He has written biographies of Thomas Wainewright, Philip Larkin, and John Keats. Among his novels are The Invention of Dr. Cake and Silver: Return to Treasure Island, and he has also written a critically acclaimed memoir, In the Blood. From 1999-2009, he served as poet laureate of the UK, and in 2015, he moved to Baltimore, becoming the Homewood Professor of the Arts at Johns Hopkins University.
“Life, no matter how strenuously you might try to control it, is always escaping our instinct for control,” says Sir Andrew Motion in his three-question Living Writers interview about Essex Clay.
Meet Sir Andrew Motion at Colgate on Oct. 20
There are two ways to join us:
- In person at Persson Hall Auditorium, 4:30 p.m.
- Via Zoom.
Everyone can participate in the audience Q&A and the book signing following. For information on how to purchase a signed book if you’re not on campus, see the Living Writers FAQs document.
Living Writers events are free and open to the public.
Tell Us What You Think
We're sorry you missed our Oct. 17 faculty roundtable and discussion of Essex Clay. Guests included Peter Balakian, Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor in humanities, professor of English, and Michael Coyle, professor of English. You can listen to a recording of the first 20 minutes below.
Follow the discussion on Twitter @ColgateLW using the hashtags #ColgateLivingWriters and #EssexClay
Go Beyond the Book
- “The poet shows his own mind under pressure, the gears clicking in and out as he attempts to manage grief through a feat of deliberate recall,” writes the reviewer for Ireland’s National Television and Radio Broadcaster.
- “To read Essex Clay is to be dropped down a terrifying, twisting ice tunnel,” writes Alice Hiller in this review for the Poetry Society.
- A fuller biography of Sir Andrew Motion can be found on the Poetry Foundation website.
- To listen to Sir Andrew Motion read some of his poems, visit his website.
The most moving and exquisitely written account of childhood loss I have ever read.Independent on Sunday
Living Writers is organized by the Department of English at Colgate University with generous support from the Olive B. O’Connor Fund as well as the President and Provost/Dean of the Faculty. This event is co-sponsored by the Guest Poets Series.