Seren, 2010 £5.00
Reviewed by Richie McCaffery, Sue Butler and Stephen Payne
.......I like it here, even the old things
.......don’t seem old,
.......we don’t know anyone
.......and when it rains
.......we are so completely
.......it’s like we’re beginning
This collection is underscored with a yearning (a sense of which is movingly caught in the poem above) for escape of both the material and emotional kind. There is a bittersweet tang to the title Welcome Back to the Country so that even in ‘Holiday’ the speaker can only dream of getting away from “the small town, the moths, the sewing machine/ haunting the bedroom”.
Many of the poems here have an almost conversational insouciance, such as the “young fella” in ‘Being Dead’ who “takes a chance on a new line/ and customers are wooed by his earnestness” but this is done in such a way as to stun the reader with singular images like “comatose superman, or sleepy astronaut”.
Each poem becomes a deft melding of wit, wistfulness and sometimes even woe. For example in ‘In Absentia’ there is the “wet scab, a plague pit/ fathoms under” and a stark cri-de-coeur—“this dreadful thing I have done, I have done./ But where were you to warn me?”
In ‘Welcome Back to the Country’ and ‘Nowhere Fast’ there is both a frustrated pride and scorn for the crumbling post-industrial subtopia in which the voice finds itself ambivalently rooted. This is a place where “windows go like this:/ glass, bars, nets, gloom containing people” but also where “sometimes, after dinner, the light gets just so—/ it’s like a picture”.
Poems like ‘On a Slope’ and ‘Nowhere Fast’ bring to mind that eerie aphorism of the late novelist David Foster Wallace on the use of irony, that it is “the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy the cage”. The voice here longs to get away (“trapped forever in this town”) but also derives such spiky and vital inspiration from the place that it is lulled reluctantly into belonging, and this makes for some seriously striking poetry, the voice of the international caught up in a local milieu. Roddy Doyle recently said something about only needing a few streets in which to base and write everything. There is much to be said for that, and in Welcome Back to the Country we have palpable glimpses of the enduring influence of home.
Have you ever been to the gardens of Versailles, then after a few hours longed for a bluebell wood or a herbaceous border? Has a few hours in the Glass gallery of the Victoria and Albert Museum ever left you wanting ceramics or textiles? Have you ever wandered round a Turner exhibition and found yourself wanting the sea-less and ship-less canvases of Rothko or de Kooning?
I have. And I acknowledge the churlishness of such feelings. But I did find that, while the poems in Graham Clifford’s pamphlet are carefully and confidently crafted, many of them had the same sound, the same feel. After a little while, a little bit of me hankered for contrast. That said, these really are fine pieces of writing and, for many readers, the consistency of tone and pace will be the strength of this collection.
Graham Clifford works in a primary school and children feature in many of his poems. There is the girl in the park, “getting nowhere fast/ in a spaceship on a spring”, a boy in ‘Sometime soon’, who writes, “with the wrong end of his pencil” and another youngster in ‘Their Son’ paying for shopping in the supermarket whose heavy specs are
.......misty with thumbprints then skin flakes
.......and he’s overdosed on orange squash concentrate,
.......his lips are stained. He stirs the greening coppers
.......while his mum puts on weight.
There’s also the boy in the poem called simply ‘A’, to whom Graham is trying to teach the first letter of the alphabet:
.......I tap on the letter again.
.......I go ah, ah, like a troubled monkey
.......and he chuckles.
.......Then a cloud bank that was threatened
.......pulls up between us and the sun
.......so shadow fills his face.
.......Electric light takes the strain.
As a keen gardener I enjoyed the poems ‘Gourds’ where gourds, “surfaced like Montgolfier submarines” and
.......Hollow to knock on, as if containing corridors,
.......when they toughened
.......into chilly cocks and succulent truncations
.......she cupped them in turn and twisted
.......each from a bristling stalk.
And being a cyclist as well as a gardener, I also liked the man in ‘On the dispersal of water’ who explains how WD-40 was concocted by NASA, “to keep fields of rockets/ from turning orange, then burnt umber”. He learned this from listening to his pocket radio as he cycled
.......along blustery North London roads
.......that cut between the reservoirs . . .
.......walloped by the slipstreams of juggernauts
.......that don’t recognise bike lanes
.......on B roads where streetlights won’t work.
These poems contain irony and subtle humour. We all live busy lives, but if you can put aside a decent chunk of time to savour these poems, I’m almost certain you won’t regret it.
.......The words you never wrote, I pick at one:
.......the edge comes up like a wet scab, a plague pit
These lines might easily be spoken by a reader of Graham Clifford's poems. They are full of grimy details, economical descriptions of the shoddiness of so much contemporary urban life; but it's what lies behind the squeaky gates and beneath the peeling paint that’s affecting. As is claimed in ‘Conspiracy’:
.......There are implications in everything:
.......these grubby coins
.......hidden between sofa cushions;
Perhaps I should admit that I have met Graham Clifford, briefly, when he read in Cardiff to launch this pamphlet. He read very well, with a clear, modest and likeable presentation. The poems, likewise, have an unpretentious surface. They typically use the language and rhythm of everyday speech, with line breaks at phrase boundaries, varying line and paragraph lengths. They are set in the county capital of Christopher Reid's Bollockshire.
Yet, almost everything worked for me. At the level of the language, there's that economy of phrase, that eye for detail, enlivened by the occasional off-centre comparison or phrase, apposite and witty. A UFO is imagined as "broad as a postcode"; a child's drawing has rockets "aimed/ for the aimless whiteness of space"; and in the ever-shabby street "Someone has prised a metal box by a lamppost/ to reveal the staggering tangle that makes clear/ the effort it takes, just to stay still."
In mood with the decay of the described environment, the main theme is loss—but rarely in a straightforward way. Despite ruined childhoods and abrasive families, the poems explore or hint toward more positive thoughts about the dignity of poverty, about resilience to loss, about how loss nourishes us by connecting us.