The Holding Centre
The painter Sean Scully, born in Dublin, raised in London, adopted by New York, defines beauty as anything that moves and engages him: beauty, however, is not singularly a question of appearance, and at the very least, ought to be affirmative.
Harry Clifton equally is drawn to that which is moving and engaging, but otherwise, as this collection demonstrates, with poems from 1974 to 2004, it is next to impossible to categorise him. Just when you think you have the measure of Clifton, he surprises you.
Take a poem like MacNeice’s London which, on the surface is a reflection about a time and a place in the foreign country of the past, suffused with nostalgia, a time when MacNeice and his contemporaries, Spender and Thomas, conjured magic across the airwaves, with a diction inspired by Yeats, commuting colour and remoteness.
On another level, MacNeice’s London, is a portal to Clifton’s beloved hall of memories, which he revisits with the palette of a John Betjemen, that enthusiastic willingness to be enchanted and seduced, the voyeur for whom no experience is incapable of stimulating the muse, for Clifton is one curious cat.
MacNeice’s London is also a stage for the compulsion of Clifton the writer to vicariously assume or deduce the consequence of being isolated in a radio bunker as the Blitz rages overhead: he vividly captures the existential, Camus-like void of the time with a single line: ‘What better place than London, to mirror the lonely self regard of a stateless person?’
If poets are fortunate to have sufficient time to develop their craft, they will admit that, on reflection, poems are, in the deduction of MacNeice, either forced or given. A casual reading of Clifton’s oeuvre, spanning three decades, is that while the menu doesn’t seem to alter much, the poems rarely read as forced. They are as natural in their quotidian endeavour as the sun.
He writes memorably and with an empirical finesse of both love and passion (‘After hours, in a tangle of legs and juices, a world turned upside down, and I feed on the lotus flower of your delicate sex’ from Monsoon Girl) and poems of humanity jostled into shape and form by the acute incisiveness of reportage, with metre (The Zone).
It would be remiss not to mention two poems, Friesian Herds, with an instantly engaging opening quartet, like transmuting a Constable landscape into Braille, and The Poet Sandra Penna, in Old Age, so moving it encouraged me to discover more about the source, another parting gift of Clifton. He can turn the greyest awning into an azure sky