Harry Clifton, Herod’s Dispensations – review

The most spell-binding passage in Herod’s Dispensations is the first part of ‘Zhoukoudian’. This describes the finding of a ‘Peking Man’ hominid fossil in the Zhoukoudian cave system in China in 1929. The writing is a metrical and syntactical triumph, creating a suspense-filled imaginative hush within which glimpses of immediate life, vast reaches of time and metaphysical assumptions about man’s place in the universe play into and against each other. In the first few lines, time is the layers of geological time the archaeologists are digging through, the historical time that separates 1929 from now, and the immediate moment of the digging:

We were digging deep in time, towards nightfall,
A light snow falling, and the journey back
To Peking ahead of us, when the spade struck
Something in the matrix.

No doubt what follows will mean more to someone who’s absorbed the thought of Teilhard de Chardin than it does to me – he’s quoted in the epigraph and described as present at the chipping out of the fossil – but even without such knowledge it’s unforgettably evocative. Great technical skill goes to the realization of the imaginative idea. An example is the 17 line long sentence whose packed but unforced unfolding brings home the momentousness of the moment. It does so first in terms of how widely and publicly its consequences will reverberate, then in the silent awe of the diggers as

                                    the human ape
of Zhoukoudian, the one in a billion chance,

The stealer of fire, the ghost in the machine,
Sinanthropus, or Peking Man,
The heresy for which nothing can atone
But death of temple, church, the image of Christ
In smithereens, the bible turned to dust –
Unearthed itself in each of us alone.

This ending of the sentence gives an impression of how much pours through it as millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of cultural development converge on and give weight to that final “alone”. The whole section is an architectonic triumph. Within it, the movement from “one” to “billion” to “atone” and “alone” creates an intricate knot of tensions, implications and ironies that it would take too long to tease out now.

This is a less obviously centred volume than Clifton’s previous collection, Portobello Sonnets. Ranging widely and varied in poetic form, it’s held together by tone and by an underlying preoccupation with endings, aftermaths and mortality. It includes several fine elegies and there’s an elegiac feel to memories of earlier phases of Clifton’s life, whether in the Ireland of his youth or working in Africa and Asia. ‘The Dry-Souled Man’, a moving meditation on the old age of the poet and critic Yvor Winters, creates a powerful sense of how swiftly times change and cultural assumptions die. Similar ideas are painted on a wider canvas in ‘Anabasis’. Here, St-John Perse, the great French poet of migrations, is seen in Peking in 1917, playing chess, his epic forming within him, surrounded by the vastness of China and Mongolia, the wreckage of past civilisations and the vivid details of a way of life and duties that have themselves become as alien yet familiar as those of ancient Athens or the Egypt of the Pharaohs.

Not all the poems reach the heights of those. Clifton’s imaginative range, his making of unexpected connections, his reanimating of obscure or forgotten pockets of life, give pleasure in lesser pieces too, but there are times when the associations are too private to work for the uninformed reader, although even then an emotional tone will usually be carried through by image and sound.

Herod’s Dispensations by Harry Clifton. Bloodaxe Books. 64pp.; £9.95

I would like to thank Patricia Oxley for permission to post this review, written for Acumen 95.

One Response to “Harry Clifton, Herod’s Dispensations – review”

  1. Edmund Prestwich» Blog Archive » Dear Big Gods by Mona Arshi – review said:

    Jan 26, 20 at 2:46 pm

    […] poems [in Herod’s Dispensations] draw strength from their grounding in fact and from the directness with which he offers his voice […]

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