A hushed and controlled beauty


POETRY:Because Harry Clifton now allows more feeling into his work, there are some poems in his new collection that will be read as long as poems are read anywhere

The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass, By Harry Clifton, Bloodaxe, 95pp. £9.95

HARRY CLIFTON’S REALM has always been somewhere in the distance, or close to the exotic, or it has been a borrowed space, or it is nowhere much. He is content to be out of place. Exile is for him a natural state where his uneasy companions are bemusement, calm watchfulness, restlessness, regret and warm intelligence. His poetry is a hard-won poetry of the self. The self in this instance has a solitary disposition, a well-stocked mind and is capable of a sour philosophy.

In his early poetry there is often a deliberate paleness in his diction, the poem becoming an exercise in reticence and restraint, a display of withholding. Clifton eschews what might be easy statement, or bright rhetoric, or colourful effect. This withholding comes also with a sense of command; each poem is as much as he wants it to be. Its minimalist music reflects a sensibility determined not to push the littleness of life too far towards the greedy exaggeration of art.

This idea of command is an essential element in his poetry. These are not random notes from a wanderer, but highly wrought poems alert to the full panoply of inherited tradition. Sometimes the tone seems to come of its own accord, from someone with a natural ear for cadence and sound, and a natural suspicion of this. In some of the early work, Clifton has reason to distrust his own facility; on the other hand, he displays it for all it’s worth in some other poems which use a longer line and a tauter stanza form.

In his previous book, Secular Eden, and his latest collection, The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass, Clifton is not averse to allowing some of his diction to dazzle, or some of his phrases to startle by their sound or their originality. Oddly enough, this emerges just as the poems themselves can seem more occasional, dictated by a change in seasons, or a visit to a place, or a memory, or a book. In other words, there is an interesting meeting between what is casual in its origin and what is then worked on, crafted, chiselled, considered, revised and offered in a tightened form.

Experience rendered in this way can move, sometimes gloriously, from the ordinary to the mythic. The poems begin with something seen, remembered, or suddenly known, or a melancholy feeling about time passing, or complex emotions about love, and then they take a longer view, or hold their breath while a new tone, filled with sonorous risk and odd wisdom slowly seeps into an end-line of a stanza or a new section of a poem.

There are moments when you hold your breath, such as in the poem Toome, set at the edge of Lough Neagh, when Clifton writes, “Somewhere / The sea makes nothing of all this”, and you sit up in pure delight, noting that this is doubly and beautifully true, in that the sea is far away, and the sea will also take this sluiced-up water when it flows into the sea and literally make nothing of it. In a Dublin poem The Early Houses, set in the early morning in the area around Little Britain Street and North King Street, he sees “Drizzle, dark before dawn, / The lights kept low, in deference to the wishes / Of the damned”.

The capital letter at the beginning of each line here is important, offering a formality and a decorum, but the poem is low-toned, and Clifton is dealing with what is daily seen in the city, so it is easy to expect, if there is going to be deference, that it will be to the wishes of the neighbours or the guards, or indeed the peace. Bringing “the damned” into the equation offers the poem an edge, gives the reader an elbow in the ribs.

In this world of held breath, Clifton used rhyme like no one else. He is rare among poets in feeling free, for example, to rhyme “down” with “town”, “page” with “age” and “please” with “sleaze”. These rhymes, and sometimes half-rhymes, are strange in Clifton’s work. Instead of offering a sort of security and ease to the poem, a nod to the reader that there is safe poetic ground ahead, they have a way of stopping the eye and the ear, holding you for a second. The rhymes seem to have an almost sad tone of acceptance in them rather than being harmonious, say, or an example of learned craft. They hold the poem; they have a way of giving a sort of fastidious punctuation to the poem, rather than offering reassurance or the idea that since words match each other then feelings must somehow match too and thus we can all feel at home.

Just as Secular Eden charted Clifton’s life and the life of his mind in Paris, this new book takes place, for the most part, in Ireland. The book is divided into three parts: Twenty-Six Counties; Six Counties; and Elsewhere. Clifton treats Ireland with the same meticulous and wondrous care as he did Africa or Asia or Italy or France. Because he is prepared now to allow more feeling in the poems than before, to use his natural talent less gingerly, to spread his middle age more plentifully across the page, so to speak, there are a number of poems in this book that will be read as long as any poems are read anywhere.

The Double Chairs, Mount Melleray, for example, is a great love poem; October is a wonderful sonnet about a Dublin autumn; Misprison and The Rebel Titans are beautifully mysterious and exotic poems set in the area around Nenagh, Co Tipperary; Toome is a poem, full of longing and odd wisdom, about love and landscape and history. The last poem, Oweniny, Upper Reaches, filled with soft, haunting cadences and strange, ambiguous musings on solitude, memory and the meaning of things, is a masterpiece. It displays Clifton’s reticence and technical skill against the need to let the poem soar into a truth that emerges from the gap between the words, and then it allows the words themselves to glide up and out in all their hushed and controlled beauty.

Colm Tóibín’s novel The Testament of Mary will be published in October


by Harry Clifton

The big news around here is the fall of leaves

In Harrington Street and Synge Street,

Lying about in pockets, adrift at your feet

As you kick them away. The other news is

the trees –

Their yellow, as I speak, is unbelievable,

Not that you need me to tell you. Everywhere

The house is falling down around our ears And it’s wonderful, in the dry, spicy air,

How quietly it happens. Close your eyes,

Don’t think, just listen. Hear them fall,

the years

We came towards each other, out of a sun Already westering. Look at us, even yet, Exchanging tree-lore, twenty years on

In a leafless cathedral – bride and groom, well-met.

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