Review – Harry Clifton, Portobello Sonnets

Harry Clifton, Portobello Sonnets, 48 pp, £9.95, Bloodaxe Books

Even skilful sonnets can make the heart sink when the poet’s use of a fixed form seems to suppress any sense of natural speech rhythms or spontaneous thought. In Portobello Sonnets, though, it’s as if spontaneously evolving thought and speech are discovering form as they go. Freed from set rhyming structures, they give the impression of soaring freely whilst actually riding currents of formal expectation in a creatively selective way.

All are set within the Portobello district of Dublin, often among specific, named streets and buildings. Clifton wrote them as a returnee to Dublin after a sixteen year absence from Ireland and his feelings about his return are equivocal, edged with conflicting apprehensions, on the one hand that he’s become an outsider, “Latest of blow-ins” in a city full of immigrants, and on the other that he might be trapped by place and haunted by the past. In themselves these concerns touch many people in an age of rapid travel. Clifton creates a solidly realised world we can easily enter. Moreover, despite the relative narrowness of the setting, he has a gift for metaphor that gives his experiences a wide resonance. The first sonnet, for example, ends with him instructing himself to

Immerse yourself, disturb the human silt,
An anchor feeling for bottom, in home waters.

Conflicting ideas of blindness, groping, and disturbance on the one hand, security and homely belonging on the other, are expressed in images that draw both on everyone’s direct experience of dark, dirty water and on universal tales of sea-faring and return. Other poems use metaphor to fuse a particular, literal scene with something more dreamlike or visionary. So sonnet 22 starts with a mournful grandeur reminiscent of some of Berryman’s Dream Songs

The Pope and Rainier dead, Saul Bellow dead –
Vast crowds and silent homage

then bumps down to earth in a grey Dublin, sardonically contrasting Dante’s vision of “The love that moves the sun and the other stars” with a scene in which the prosaic horror of a shakedown by a known street-derelict is made ironically evocative of Dante’s Hell.

Clifton doesn’t have Longley’s genius for creating an immediate impression of other people or of addressing them in a way that includes the reader in a flow of communion. Sonnet 12 “(to the singer Freddie White”) leaves me in the cold, shut out by a catalogue of people and places I don’t know. However, he writes very evocatively when the reader’s position matches his own status as an outsider watching other people’s activity, as in Sonnet 30, about mechanics in a garage, or 31, a fine, witty and lightly dancing observation of a night bakery which mingles colloquial and religious registers to evoke a kind of non-religious epiphany, a moment of secular peace and wholeness that feels like grace, suspended “between night and morning, heaven and hell”.

Altogether, I found this a very readable and enjoyable collection, a demonstration of how gracefully the sonnet form can be adapted to contemporary observation and reflection if the poet approaches it boldly enough.

 

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