I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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The Return

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…



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