Harry Clifton, Gone Self Storm – review

The cover image of Harry Clifton’s Gone Self Storm is Mark Tracey’s beautiful black and white photograph of Howe Strand, which shows a ruined building silhouetted between the running sea and the sky. The poems themselves are haunted by death. Parts One and Three are dedicated to the memory of dead women, the first being the speaker’s mother or stepmother. Part Two begins with a short sequence set in the Glasnevin cemetery, and most of its poems are elegies or addresses to the dead. What’s really distinctive, though, is not this elegiac subject matter but the way ideas of change and disintegration have been absorbed into its style and expressive procedures.  Many of the poems slide like dreams between poles of fragmentary but extremely sharply focused distinctness on the one hand and uncertainty on the other. This is clearly deliberate, suggesting how ungraspable things become as they slip into the past. Moreover, the speaker’s uncertainty about things surrounding him extends to uncertainty about himself. The section dedicated to his mother begins ‘I was conceived, the story goes, / On a Dutch tramp steamer / Ploughing the Magellan Straits / Halfway to Buenos Aires.’ Later in the section, ‘Stepmother’ begins:

You were drafted in
At the moment of conception,
Filling an empty space –
And I learned to call you Mother.

Looking back to discover where he comes from, the poet finds:

A language all conditionals, subjunctives
In a land of might-have-been, where the cloudscapes thicken

Though the whole section is about this Mother, it isn’t always clear whether a given poem is about  her or spoken by her about someone else. There are vivid glimpses of her story, but continuous uncertainty about how to thread them together. Throughout the book, poems are full of narrative details but their power isn’t in narrative development, it’s in the lyrical presentation of emotions arising from the poet’s never-quite-successful attempts to pin down elusive aspects of his and other people’s stories and in the probing sharpness of his intelligence as it flickers over and through them. Ultimately, I think, what the poems most continuously express is the sense that reality is fugitive, both because things change and because even in the moment of experience our perceptions are provisional and inadequate. Clifton often surrounds literal description or narrative with mythological associations that extend or dissolve the literal into a kind of penumbral suggestiveness that seems to carry the weight of the poem’s feeling. The sonnet ‘The Gravediggers’ opens:

Three of them slaking thirst, this Saturday
In the back-bar of the gravediggers’ pub –
A black and lightless realm, where to drink is to pray
Not to a soul in a mirror, a cigarette stub,

But to the millions gone before,
The city of the dead, on this side of town

The concrete detail of lines 1, 2 and 4 gives the poem a solid core. The poet’s lyrical reflections are expressed metaphorically in lines 3, 5 and 6. The life of the poem lies in the tension between the scene itself and the poet’s response.  An extremely successful example of the technique is the short sequence ‘The Felling’. This involves several overlapping circles of reference – what a certain pine wood meant in the poet’s youth, and how he feels returning after long absence to find it cut down; memories of the life of the area long ago; old and now dead women, apparently the poet’s aunts; the flowers that they planted now growing wild. The beauty of the poem is in the way it develops by a series of dreamlike transitions in which one idea blurs into or becomes another, often by means of a mythological parallel. The pine wood becomes a metaphor for the aunts themselves and a focus for meditation on death. Near the start Clifton writes:

        I came back, like rain on the wind,

From a great elsewhere, to the ruined Parthenon
Of trunks, the raped Arcadian grove
Once picnicked in by sisters, maiden aunts

Now shades of themselves, the lake shining through
In the distance, spread like a water table
With its own best silver.

There’s a magical shimmering between these images of bare pine trunks, ruined stone pillars, the raped Arcadian grove, and the picnicking ladies, now ghosts of themselves in age or death. Not only does each image reflect on the others, they shine through each other, as human social pretensions shine through the image of the lake spread with its best silver. There’s humour here, but the tone can darken dramatically, even nightmarishly, as when the thought of the old trees before their cutting down makes Clifton imagine:

                                    A sisterhood
Of old trees, leaning into each other,

Conspiratorial, whispering on every wind
The inside story… I have strayed
Into their circle. Dead, they stare at me,

Offer me cakes, cold tea, a place at a distance
From the human family.

But life is change, apparent loss may be transformation and renewal. The series ends,

Goodbye dears, and thank you. Everything

Has run wild again, but nothing is lost.
I stand in the long grass. Arcadia, Parthenon –
Everything that shadowed us has gone.

The way this poetry proceeds by metaphorical suggestions and lyrical declaration means that it’s equally able to suggest the sorrows and fears of what feels like loss and aspirations to a more buoyant embracing of changing life.

I hope my quotations have suggested how skilfully Clifton deploys rhythm and metaphor in a lyrical mode. It’s not his only approach, though. Urbane and erudite, even in the plainest language he’s a master of the arresting phrase whose ironies set the mind going in multiple directions. ‘The Has-beens’ begins:

You who managed your decline
So beautifully, who withdrew
At just the right time –

 ‘After the Barbarians’ starts:

Back then, I wanted to be
A heterosexual Cavafy –

Here, language and cadence are those of ordinary speech, heightened by their compact pointedness, the precision with which punctuation and line ending control emphasis, and the surefooted speed of their movement through ideas.

Gone Self Storm by Harry Clifton. £10.99. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 978-1-78037-453-6

I would like to thank David Cooke for permission to repost this review, which appears in Summer 2023 edition of The High Window.


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