Portobello Sonnets review: a journey from experience into innocence
Harry Clifton’s collection is haunted by another canal bank saunterer and sonneteer, who also began his second act here
Harry Clifton at home in Dublin: His poems capture the homecoming we all long for. Photograph: Frank Miller
Some will be surprised by the passion and intensity with which Harry Clifton embraces the local in this often astonishing, accomplished and sometimes virtuoso sequence of 35 sonnets.
In his lecture The Uncreated Conscience, Clifton talked of writers moving to Paris in search of the “detachment and anonymity that are the necessary ground for imagination”. But it is a mistake to take a poet completely at his word when writing prose. Secular Eden, his poetic record of his years in Paris, often shows warm attachments and empathy with the people of his quartier.
Portobello Sonnets chronicles Clifton’s return to Dublin, a journey from experience into innocence. The first sonnet in the sequence sees him, Odysseus-like , having travelled in “the lands of sex and pain/ Where the Muses dwell”, approaching his red-brick Ithaca, turning the corner at Brady’s pharmacy on to Harrington Street, with the self-imposed imperative:
Immerse yourself, disturb the human silt,
An anchor feeling for bottom, on home waters.
The quartier he is now settling in, “Little Jerusalem”, is the most strangely European one in Dublin. Colonised by Lithuanian Jews in the 19th century, it now follows the pattern found in many other European cities as the kosher shops become halal butchers, and the Cohens and Herzogs are replaced by a new wave of Lithuanians, including a gorgeous blond hairdresser celebrated in one of the sonnets here.
Clifton adapts a strategy of passive watching, becomes an observer of the passing show, a flâneur along the canal banks.
From Harold’s Cross to the opening Red Sea doors
Of Portobello Lock, the strait way through
To the Promised Land. There are secret sources,
He finds much to celebrate in the ordinary life around him, even the mechanics of Bloomfield Motors:
Have you ever seen a happier bunch of men?
Their music is garage, their blue-lit jokes
Hydraulic, as they tinker with undersides,
Body parts, and the blackened, burnt-out wrecks
Of overnight derangements, underworld rides.
But the tone can be acerbic as well as celebratory, especially when, Tiresias-like, Clifton observes the antics of the young on the Appian Way:
They frighten me slightly, those nice boys and girls
Who never put a foot wrong . . . I take them down off the shelf
In wonderment – technical brilliance, youth, elan,
The sons and daughters, everywhere applause
For their liberal struggle, against known odds.
One of the most memorable poems in Secular Eden is about his local Parisian baker, and here too we find Clifton “between night and morning”, loitering outside the Bretzel, Dublin’s last Kosher bakery:
Breathing it in, the yeasty smell
Of everydayness, freshness for the soul.
The sonnet is a peculiarly apt form for this endeavour, reflecting the basic, functional and flexible two-story, red-brick unit prevalent in Portobello. However, Clifton’s choice of the form is no accident. The book is haunted by another canal bank saunterer and sonneteer, who famously, also began his second act here.
This homage is made explicit in the final sonnet, set near the site of the chest infirmary where Patrick Kavanagh nearly died in 1955, before his canal-bank rebirth.
Powerlessness, be his lot. The grass that sings
In his ears, the rat hesitating,
Taking him in, a stranger off the sea,
Before they both move on to greater things.
Perhaps that is the homecoming we all long for: to no longer just be the one who sees, but to be seen, to be taken in. This book marks a poetic rebirth for Harry Clifton, as he pulls into what he calls “the dangerous Dublin stretch”.
Michael O’Loughlin’s most recent collection is Poems 1980-2015 (New Island)