A po­etic re­birth on a jour­ney from ex­pe­ri­ence into in­no­cence

Por­to­bello Son­nets

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Michael O’Lough­lin

By Harry Clifton Blood­axe Books, £9.95

Some will be sur­prised by the pas­sion and in­ten­sity with which Harry Clifton em­braces the lo­cal in this of­ten as­ton­ish­ing, ac­com­plished and some­times vir­tu­oso se­quence of 35 son­nets.

In his lec­ture The Un­cre­ated Con­science, Clifton talked of writ­ers mov­ing to Paris in search of the “de­tach­ment and anonymity that are the nec­es­sary ground for imag­i­na­tion”. But it is a mis­take to take a poet com­pletely at his word when writ­ing prose. Sec­u­lar Eden, his po­etic record of his years in Paris, of­ten shows warm at­tach­ments and em­pa­thy with the peo­ple of his quartier.

Por­to­bello Son­nets chron­i­cles Clifton’s re­turn to Dublin, a jour­ney from ex­pe­ri­ence into in­no­cence. The first son­net in the se­quence sees him, Odysseus-like , hav­ing trav­elled in “the lands of sex and pain/ Where the Muses dwell”, ap­proach­ing his red- brick Ithaca, turn­ing the cor­ner at Brady’s phar­macy on to Har­ring­ton Street, with the self-im­posed im­per­a­tive:

Im­merse your­self, dis­turb the hu­man

silt, An an­chor feel­ing for bot­tom, on home


The quartier he is now set­tling in, “Lit­tle Jerusalem”, is the most strangely Eu­ro­pean one in Dublin. Colonised by Lithua­nian Jews in the 19th cen­tury, it now fol­lows the pattern found in many other Eu­ro­pean cities as the kosher shops be­come ha­lal butch­ers, and the Co­hens and Her­zogs are re­placed by a new wave of Lithua­ni­ans, in­clud­ing a gor­geous blond hair­dresser cel­e­brated in one of the son­nets here.

Clifton adapts a strat­egy of pas­sive watch­ing, be­comes an ob­server of the pass­ing show, a flâneur along the canal banks.

From Harold’s Cross to the open­ing

Red Sea doors Of Por­to­bello Lock, the strait way

through To the Promised Land. There are se­cret

sources, Pure up­wellings.

He finds much to cel­e­brate in the or­di­nary life around him, even the me­chan­ics of Bloom­field Mo­tors:

Have you ever seen a hap­pier bunch of

men? Their mu­sic is garage, their blue-lit

jokes Hy­draulic, as they tinker with

un­der­sides, Body parts, and the black­ened,

burnt-out wrecks Of overnight de­range­ments,

un­der­world rides.

But the tone can be acer­bic as well as cel­e­bra­tory, es­pe­cially when, Tire­sias- like, Clifton ob­serves the an­tics of the young on the Ap­pian Way:

They frighten me slightly, those nice

boys and girls Who never put a foot wrong . . . I take

them down off the shelf In won­der­ment – tech­ni­cal bril­liance,

youth, elan, The sons and daugh­ters, ev­ery­where

ap­plause For their lib­eral strug­gle, against

known odds.

One of the most mem­o­rable po­ems in Sec­u­lar Eden is about his lo­cal Parisian baker, and here too we find Clifton “be­tween night and morn­ing”, loi­ter­ing out­side the Bret­zel, Dublin’s last Kosher bak­ery:

Breath­ing it in, the yeasty smell Of ev­ery­day­ness, fresh­ness for the


The son­net is a pe­cu­liarly apt form for this en­deav­our, re­flect­ing the ba­sic, func­tional and flex­i­ble two- story, red- brick unit preva­lent in Por­to­bello. How­ever, Clifton’s choice of the form is no ac­ci­dent. The book is haunted by an­other canal bank saun­terer and son­neteer, who fa­mously, also be­gan his sec­ond act here.

This homage is made ex­plicit in the fi­nal son­net, set near the site of the chest in­fir­mary where Pa­trick Ka­vanagh nearly died in 1955, be­fore his canal-bank re­birth.

Let anonymity Pow­er­less­ness, be his lot. The grass that

sings In his ears, the rat hes­i­tat­ing, Tak­ing him in, a stranger off the sea, Be­fore they both move on to greater


Per­haps that is the home­com­ing we all long for: to no longer just be the one who sees, but to be seen, to be taken in. This book marks a po­etic re­birth for Harry Clifton, as he pulls into what he calls “the dan­ger­ous Dublin stretch”.

Michael O’Lough­lin’s most re­cent col­lec­tion is Po­ems 1980-2015 (New Is­land)

Harry Clifton: cel­e­brates or­di­nary life. PHO­TO­GRAPH: FRANK MILLER

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