Portobello Sonnets, by Harry Clifton, Bloodaxe Books, 48 pp, £9.95, ISBN: 9781780373478
Harry Clifton has been for decades a poet who uses a wide angle lens. Responding partly it seems to a generational impulse (to differentiate himself from older poets identified, incestuously twinned even, with their Irish origins), he has been pushed or drawn to see the Irish scene from a distance. Earlier this year he pointed in an Irish Times article to his first book, The Walls of Carthage (1977), built on a metaphor from Augustine: “desert pilgrims endlessly travelling back and forth between Alexandria and Carthage, unable ever to decide which set of city walls are the most beautiful”. His own journey, he said, was that of a pilgrim also “forced to wander between relative states”, his life lived mainly “elsewhere than in Ireland”. Precisely: the island viewed in terms of its elsewheres, the foreign embraced as exile away from home. And the city, not the rural root.
But he did return after living on various continents, more immediately after ten years in Paris, to take up a perch near his boyhood home, in an agreeably shifty quarter of Dublin. The attraction of city life, the presence of unknown, unconnected others, perhaps glimpsed across a lightshaft in an apartment block in the small hours, had been celebrated in his Secular Eden: Paris Notebooks 1994-2004 (2007). But the city in these poems (dated November 2004-June 2005) is different, since it’s also the scene of his youth, and return carries some foreboding.
In the opening sonnet, “ … The cab turns west / At Brady’s pharmacy …”. The taxi is the comforting conveyance in foreign cities, and on visits home it offers reassuring mobility. He has an earlier poem on just that theme, “Exiles”: “In our own city, we are exiles – / Strangers, through the closed windows / Of taxis” where the moving car is the accomplice of “love / which throws us together / In the back seat of our own destiny …”. But when the speaker recognises the landmarks only too readily it brings him up against the question: “Are you not scared, young man, of your Daddy’s ghost / And his before him …” He is middle-aged, but in that line experiences a dizzy fall back into childhood.
The return is as monochromatically mysterious as anything in Beckett. The reader is being asked both to consider the unease of a man surrounded by a familiar geography and yet at odds, and to recognise that he is far from alone in feeling out of place. His neighbours in what was “the Jewish quarter” near Clanbrassil Street include the visibly daft, also the stressed mothers pushing babies in buggies and the recent immigrants. His writing colleagues in the city are rivals, eyed up and down; he recognises his own anxiety, ambition, disappointment in theirs. He is married but sees himself in the other person’s eyes as “The private, the obsessional”.
Well the sonnet is an obsessional form. Its intellectual skeleton is opposition, its form is imbalance, the impatient compression of its concluding section (whether six, four, three or two lines) always leaving a question only temporarily settled, so the writer is invited or compelled to return to the charge, as in a domestic argument: “ … And another thing”. And still in a series of sonnets the ground does shift, so that we move in this case from personal angst to literary reminiscence, to sharp observation, celebration even, of a new deconsecrated Dublin as children are delivered to a crèche in what used a church:
Ireland drifting away, into a long ago
Policed by myth and terror. New century, new dawn –
And the late-arisen, through the playschool door,
Manoeuvring their children. First-time fathers …
I quote these lines to suggest just how the management of these sonnets is admirable without courting admiration; the skill with which the line varies, but returns to something next-door to, the iambic pentameter is never merely on display, but keeps pointing the reader’s attention back to the argument. Line-breaks, caesuras, hyphenated words, advance it, while the relaxed voice tosses in an extra syllable or two when they’re needed.
That sonnet concludes with two more not-quite-matched lines:
… Breaking bread, in the secular heaven
Of the drop-in centre, the church absolved of bells.
“Secular” is from early on a keyword for Clifton, its meaning going beyond the European laicité. It is not just the political allegiance to a notion of a state and a society absolved from clerical influence, though, as in the lines quoted above, it certainly includes that position. However his use of the term, as in the title of his earlier book, makes it clear that the secular is defined in apposition (not merely opposition) to the sacred, an element to which he is far from wholly hostile. Again, the sacred is not merely the magnet for a historical nostalgia. The article on the Augustinian metaphor which I quoted earlier in this review was a tribute to his old teacher, the recently deceased Archbishop Desmond Connell, and as well as a kind image of a man wholly detached from the saeculum, the century in which he found himself, it is a reminder of the vast repository of complex mental structures historically enclosed in Catholic thought. And a question: can it be that all that ingenious and resonant thinking is gone out of our reach forever? I think this question, though not addressed head on, lurks in the undergrowth of Portobello Sonnets, with its constant reference to the sacred as devalued touchstone.
Sometimes there’s an almost paradisal vision. If the night bakery on Lennox Street, the workers in white compared negatively with angels, offers a luminous image of “everydayness, freshness for the soul / That only asks of the earth a place to dwell / In weightless ecstasy”, there are harsher encounters with “Depressive greys / Unbeautiful lives”. This is not quite Eden after all, but it is certainly Ireland in the twenty-first century, true to life – except perhaps in its refusal of a personal backward look. The quartier has a literary past of course and there is a bow to Beckett’s haunted Portobello nursing home. It has indeed a literary present as well, as the scene of these poems is the locus of Adrian Kenny’s stories in Portobello Notebook. Poetry demands more introspection it seems than fiction, and allows less room for dialogue; the encounters with North African or Lithuanian migrants appear to be rather intrusions on an inner monologue than meetings with autonomous beings. The insistence on the unmemorable everyday demands the virtues of prose, but of a tightly controlled prose.
Others, intimate and foreign, keep their distance in this book. Clifton has delayed publishing it as a collection (though parts have appeared in journals) until four years after the appearance of his last, more substantial book, The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass (2012), and readers of the two will appreciate the contrast as much as the connection – the first of the sonnets also serves as epigraph to the larger collection. Fantasy, history, geographical spread (it even has two sections headed “Twenty-six Counties” and “Six Counties”), above all human contact, feature in the more loosely built structures of the 2012 volume. It has range and depth too, with moments of exhilaration. The two together show what different things Harry Clifton can do in verse, and The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass suggests that he is no longer conforming to the rootless aesthetic earlier discerned (even demanded) by critics, but exploring on his own terms the fertile gap between the native and the national.
These thirty-five sonnets from 2004-05, running in their narrow grooves, remain a remarkable achievement, and they also show him firmly claiming the poet’s privilege of remaining on the edge. Not just in the sense of a marginal figure observing his fellows distantly: the edge is also the place of risk and assertion. He may be modest and self-deprecating, fidget uneasily at the mention of “home”, harp on his middle-aged status, but his voice in Portobello Sonnets claims a poetic authority as willed, as unambiguous, as James Clarence Mangan’s.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is a poet and editor.