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Guest Review: Begnal On Clifford

by Graham Clifford

Graham Clifford’s pamphlet Welcome Back to the Country, published by Seren Books, is the winner of the Poetry Wales Purple Moose Prize for 2010.  It’s nice to see that a beer brewery (Purple Moose) somewhere in the world sponsors poetry publications – others ought to do so too; it would be a great help to poets everywhere.  Clifford, the winner of this contest, has also been successful in a number of other contests, and his poetry seems well-suited for the contest milieu.  It is accessible, straightforward, with craftsmanship apparent so that it is capable of appealing to both the general reader and the poet-judge.  This could either be a good thing or a dissatisfying thing, depending on the individual who chooses to engage with his work (if, for example, he or she falls into something other than the “general reader” category).

Zoë Skoulding, one of the two judges, provides a blurb arguing that “these poems locate the dark edges of ‘ordinary life’ so precisely as to reveal that no such thing exists.”  In other words, we are meant to see via these poems that even the seemingly mundane is in reality worth our closer attention and could be full of unexpected surprises, depending on how attentive the poet is to the details.  This may be true, but I’m not so certain that this is what Clifford’s project always consists of here.  In fact, he seems to be fairly dismissive of ordinary country life.  He does render it precisely, as Skoulding suggests, but there is little that is affirmative about most of these poems, or even darkly so.  If anything, Clifford often seems to be venting his annoyance and disgust and a desire to be elsewhere.  In “Holiday,” for example, he writes,

I know it is wrong to ask, but
could we,
be more like somebody else
one day?
               I’m bored of myself,
these arms and legs and this past,
I’ve heard it all before:
the small town the moths the sewing machine
haunting the spare room…

Such ordinary existence (running together without commas) seems to be the last thing he wants any part of.  Similarly, his poem “The year of rain” paints an even bleaker portrait of village life, with suitably-observed particulars (“Outside we will shelter in bus stops/ and pavilions, the 1940s ice cream parlour/ with psoriasis of the paint job…”).  And then we come to “On a slope”:

Trapped for ever in this town
a green, open prison with too much sky,
too much surface area cooling quickly down

where spinsters and wealthy men who wear
ironed jeans scowl along supermarket aisles.
You serve them, burning up, desperate for

your share. Perhaps you have been forgotten
or the very best you deserve is a carnival
by the canal locks, featuring the local librarian…

At this point, the reader might be tempted to say, “I want out of here too.”

An obvious precedent to Clifford is Philip Larkin, the master of bleak irony coupled with English frustration.  The danger with the precise rendering of the bleak and the mundane in this case, though, is that, rather than attaining the edginess that Skoulding’s phrase “locate the dark edges” implies, rather than transmuting the ordinary into the extraordinary, the poems themselves become mundane, and the reader is imbued with the same bleak feelings that gave rise to the work to begin with, rather than with any sense of wonderment.  For me, the ordinary in Welcome Back to the Country often remains just that.  I acknowledge that it very well could be different for other readers.  Zoë Skoulding is no slouch.

A desired sense of wonderment can only occur through the poet’s use of language on the page, I would say, and often there is enough going on in these pages that Clifford grabs one’s attention.  He has a good eye.  Other times, though, I was underwhelmed by form as well as content (this being, again, merely a subjective response).  Thus, the poems I liked the best in this volume were the few that veered away from realistic description, away from the portraits of the everyday.  “No alternative now” is another escape fantasy, but this time into a surreal forest existence where “our clothes [drop] from us in leaf shapes/ in the dark crunchiness/ where we copulate quickly like foxes/ and crap standing, ready to run.”  Not only are such images welcomely startling, but Clifford’s language seems concomitantly stronger, both terse and alliterative.  “Being dead” is perhaps the most humorous piece in the collection, positing an improvement in one’s life through dying: “You die, and being dead/ are better. From night buses/ you watch with dry always-open eyes…”  What might also change if Clifford were to similarly let die, through natural evolution, some of the strategies that have seemingly won him this pamphlet contest?

Michael S. Begnal’s new collection Future Blues is forthcoming this year from Salmon Poetry.  His previous collections include Ancestor Worship (Salmon, 2007) and Mercury, the Dime (Six Gallery Press, 2005). He has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Poetry Ireland Review, Notre Dame Review, and Avant-Post: The Avant-Garde under “Post-” Conditions (Litteraria Pragensia, 2006). Most recently, he composed the Afterword to James Liddy’s posthumous collection Fest City (Arlen House, 2010).
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