Poetry: Shock of the new in a slew of selected poems
Tom Paulin, Harry Clifton, Noel Monahan and Paul Perry all have new collections
Tom Paulin: seeks out ways to shock and disturb. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty
A selected poems offers not just a useful way to gauge the continuities and changes in a poet’s work but also a different vantage point on the broad field of Irish poetry in recent decades.
Noel Monahan’s Where the Wind Sleeps: New and Selected Poems (Salmon, €14) collects work from five previous collections and a substantial set of new poems. Monahan’s poems are sociable and realist, and readers will recognise the world he describes and his perspective on it.
An extract from Diary of a Town simply goes around the houses, juxtaposing “Mary Verdon is dreaming of dying before Christmas / But that happens every year” with “Busty Mahety joins Hughie Small and The Danger Smith / In the Star Bar”, while The Funeral Game surreally remembers a childhood game, “John Joe beat the dead march on a saucepan. // We held wakes, issued death certificates / To old crows, kittens, chickens.”
The more recent work is smoother but less distinctive: the funerals and elegies are for real now, which may be why the poems feel toned down.
Harry Clifton’s The Holding Centre: Selected Poems 1974-2004 (Bloodaxe, £12) is an interesting and more puzzling collection. A “textual note” states that the book collects work Clifton published before The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass (2012), but in fact it also includes previously uncollected poems and revises others (including the title poem) while skimping on Clifton’s bulky “comeback” collection, Secular Eden: Paris Notebooks (2007).
In spite of this, Clifton’s selection emphasises his remarkable consistency. Poems progress fluently line by line and stanza by stanza to similar, often jaundiced reflections on the strained relationship between the poet and the modern world:
I shut the window, bank the fire,
And pick up Plato on The Good.
The lumberjack who gives us wood
For nothing, I see him across in the bar
Where a girl is slicing lemons, tidying shelves,
And shadows argue, the porkpie hats
Of failures home from Canada, playing skat
And fourhand poker.
(At the Grave of Silone)
Clifton addresses the consistency of the work, as a problem, in Mort Feldman, another of his “portrait of the artist” poems: “Trapped in a groove, / Attacking myself for failures in love, in art, / Might I from your quietness take heart, / Your still, small voice, that called the bluff / Of multitudes, and never raised the roof?”
This short passage is typical in many ways of Clifton’s sardonic art: the joke on “mort” in the title plays on the dead composer’s first name, Morton, while Elijah’s depiction of God’s “still, small voice” is transferred to the composer’s work; the lines also highlight the talky phrasing of Clifton’s later work, introducing a less literary register with poker verbs (“call” and “raise”) and the cliched “trapped in a groove”, while the almost-rhyme of “roof” and “groove” jars against the steady iambic rhythm of the poem’s rhetorical question. While it catches the continuity of Clifton’s tone and line, the selectivity of The Holding Centre misses the cumulative impact of his Paris Notebooks or the long Portobello sonnet sequence recently published in Poetry Ireland Review.