Review – Pilgrim Tongues by Cliff Forshaw

Pilgrim Tongues by Cliff Forshaw, Wrecking Ball Press, Office 9, Danish Buildings, 44 – 46 High Street, Hull, East Yorks, HU1 1PS. 124 pp. £8.95.

Where Maura Dooley’s poetry is all laser-like concentration, Forshaw strides round the world, taking it on with drive, intelligence and humanity, scattering memorable phrases and ideas as he goes, but in a way that to my mind disperses rather than concentrating the energies of his writing. A number of poems in the first two sections, travelling from Hull through Cambodia, Vietnam and Israel, seemed closer to skilfully versified travelogue or foreign correspondent’s report than to poetry. I admired Forshaw’s linguistic exuberance, while feeling it often drowned the poetry in its own excess. I enjoyed his verbal wit, his playfulness among ideas, the range of experience he covered and the impression he gave of forging his style with an ear to the latest developments in language. However, I didn’t find many poems I returned to with a sense of deepening understanding or pleasure.

One where I did was “Pilgrimage to Cythera”. Taking its starting point from Watteau’s painting of that name, this poem in five substantial sections shimmers between lyrical eloquence, wry humour and sober moral depth. In it, sympathetic meditations on the tissues of illusion we weave around love, romance and the erosions of time give way to harsher thoughts on the deceptions and callous frivolity of power. Shifts of angle keep things changing and alive as we’re made to see the parts of the poem we’ve already read in different lights. The relationship to Watteau’s painting draws the language towards a lyricism that’s both poignant and ironic when played against the aggressively contemporary idiom of other poems and the subtler internal subversions of this one, as in “This little harbour disguised by bouquets / of wild flowers woven round the Attic statuary / all makes a very serviceable Greek cove”. In the same section, I enjoyed “Hotel Transylvania”, with its urbane wit in a style that seems to build on that developed by James Fenton in poems like “The Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford” and “Chosun”.

Forshaw makes much explicit use of intertextual allusion. Larkin is a vivid presence, particularly in the section I’ve been discussing, which is called “Under Travelling Skies”, from a line in Larkin’s “Triple Time”. This can cause problems: such a powerful poet can overshadow a lesser one, as I think happens in “Than: a god”, where an incongruous lurch into Larkin’s “Church Going” makes Forshaw’s ending seem simply weak. Other allusions to Larkin are more interesting, invoking him not as a mere influence but as a voice to be deliberately engaged and wrestled with.

I would like to thank Patricia Oxley for permission to reprint this review, which appeared in Acumen 86 as part of the same article as my review of Maura Dooley.

One Response to “Review – Pilgrim Tongues by Cliff Forshaw”

  1. Edmund Prestwich» Blog Archive » Review – Anna Wigley, Ghosts said:

    Feb 24, 17 at 10:21 am

    […] its strengths and limitations, Ghosts is at an opposite pole to Pilgrim Tongues and in some ways much more like The Silvering. Instead of dispersal we have a careful concentration […]

Leave a Reply