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The best recent poetry: new work from Harry Clifton, Andrew Fitzsimons and Majella Kelly

Plus, a new collaboration between Paul Muldoon and American painter Philip Pearlstein

“I was conceived, the story goes,/ On a Dutch tramp steamer/Ploughing the Magellan Straits/ Halfway to Buenos Aires.” -- the incantatory opening lines from Harry Clifton’s A Ship Came from Valparaiso set the theme and tune for Gone Self Storm (Bloodaxe £10.99). “And the name of the ship/Would be given me, the firstborn,/ Sailing north, out of waters/I never cease to explore.”

Clifton merges memory and legend indelibly. Windblown, restless poems summon the spirit of Amergin’s “airy epigraph I am wind/Off the sea” (Amergin), Clifden identifying with Amergin, “Hispanic in origin, like myself…” The title comes from Keats’ letters, “To paint from memory of gone self storm” and forms the epigraph for the signature poem A House Called Stormy Weather where Clifton, always the outsider, haunts time itself, “The indestructible open house/ Of dead and living, frozen time,/And I who call it home.”

Liminal spaces are eerily charged with foretelling, “In the space before I was born, the oldest space on earth/ Where you can see too far for your own good…In the amniotic warmth. I have yet to be born,/To come into the knowledge of myself and go back home/To the locus of pure suffering, before history, Picking up baggage along the runway…” (Chile). Clifton’s play between imagination and memory is vertiginous and dark, “I stand in metaphysical space//On the top rung of a ladder /And think generations –/My head in his attic..” (Mother and Son) while an unswept chimney strikes a powerful metaphor for Clifton’s dark, hypnotic vision of existence, “Spread the dust-sheet now…And start the vacuum up./Stand back, while the nests of blood/ Aborted…the unborn generations/Disappear into the sac/Of darkness with a sigh/..the hearth is cold, and you can see the sky.”

Andrew Fitzsimons’ The Complete Haiku of Matsuo Basho (University of California Press, £14.99) is the first English translation of Basho’s work which strictly complies to the Japanese form. And the restriction breathes new life into the poems, familiar images feel brand-new, the juxtapositions sharper, more surprising, “A snowy morning,/onion shoots point the way/ into the garden” – the haikus’ sharp vitality recalling Tu Fu’s colleague who once described images as like being alive twice –” The salted sea bream/even the gums looking cold/in the fishmonger”.


Fitzsimons brings completeness to this collection in more than one sense: as a poet and Professor of English and Cultures at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, his immersion in Japanese culture and in particular the life of Basho inform the fascinating introduction and meticulous annotations. While hitherto Basho’s been associated with “brevity, restraint, Zen austerity”, Fitzsimons elucidates the “extraordinary range and subtlety of Basho’s language”, his “invigorated attention to the extraordinary ordinary of the everyday world. Basho is not so much a seer as a see-er, one of the great lookers and noticers of poetry.”

Fitzsimons is an equally attentive “see-er”, providing the historical and cultural context which allows the readers to get a little closer to Edo Japan. Centuries fall away as we hear again the sound of cracking water jars, “a water jar cracks/in the ice of nighttime/ in bed awoken”. Fitzsimons points out Basho’s extraordinary range of subject matter which includes male love, urban environments as well as country life, concluding, “the dynamic interiority from which these poems emerged has much to say to us in the time of coronavirus, Basho…may be the poet of lockdown.” And it is true, here are seventeen syllables which succinctly evoke that peculiar claustrophobia of the pandemic, “In my tiny hut/the mosquitoes so tiny/ a tiny mercy”.

Paul Muldoon’s collaboration with the late painter Philip Pearlstein in The Castle of Perseverance (Enitharmon Editions £35) is full of ludic delight. Twenty-six water colours of bric-à-brac assemblages from Perlstein’s own collection “of terra cotta objects…fragments of gods, goddesses, and demons from various ancient cultures” complement three long poems. The title poem commences with the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb before dissolving to “the parlor where my mother would be embalmed” in Co Armagh. The talismanic objects in the unused “good room” echo similar effects in the “cold. cold parlor” of Elizabeth Bishop’s First Death in Nova Scotia, its icy sense of mortality, “The jury may be out as to whether our final journey/ is circular or linear”.

Imaginary journeys juxtaposed beside real objects such as “A Dictionary of Rhyming Slang” reflect the changing function of objects and words and fuel Muldoon’s rippling, rhyming associations, “Though the armchairs were fitted with antimacassars/to ward off the oil Lord Byron would once bracket/ ‘incomparable’ the threat now comes from geezers/in drainpipe trousers and drape jackets//who slicked their hair in Brylcream and pig grease.” Images shape-shift, one thing always reminding Muldoon of another, as he spins his dazzling connections. The epigraph to Artichokes and Truffles is taken from a letter to Kirk Douglas written by Eddie Lewis. Lewis wonders if a conversation on snails and oysters in Spartacus, which the film censors consider an unacceptable portrayal of homosexuality, could be replaced with one about “truffles and artichokes”.

Muldoon leaps through a wealth of associations from the Tyrian purple (produced from sea snails) of the Roman Emperor to the “periwinkle feather boa” supported by a “totally zonked” Marc Bolan through a stream of sexual connotations associated with the truffle-hosting oak grove, proving the impossibility of ever censoring sexuality while using metaphors from the natural world “…Such is the self-generative drive/of that... truffle its scent mimics a hormone/ in a male pig’s saliva.”

Majella Kelly’s The Speculations of Country People (Penguin, £10.99) introduces a vibrant new voice in Irish poetry. A series of 15 poems entitled ‘Songeens for the Tuam Babies’ explore the physical landscape which ultimately betrayed its dark secrets, “For this is the seventh acre,/the acre that ate babies, but only the ones/ whose mothers were sinners, ones it was right/ to leave nightly rocking themselves to sleep.” (The Seventh Acre).

Kelly’s deepest preoccupation is with voice and especially stifled voices, “To go into The Home was to be given/your voice on a spoon and told: swallow it./When they shaved our heads, our voices wilted /on our tongues …cut nettles in empty cups… they insisted on silence on the birthing table…” In Dandelions, Kelly’s ear is literally to the ground, “I have come to listen for the lost voices of the children. I know they are here. They are here absolutely. I lie on a blanket of dandelions, my ear to the garden’s secret crypt beneath.” Eventually the names rise to the surface, “Patrick, Mary, Peter…Female Roche, Male O’Brien, Baby Forde, Baby Kelly…”

Patrick Kavanagh in his poem The Hospital described naming as “the love act” and this naming of the submerged babies is Kelly’s love act, echoed in her opening genealogy-tracing poem, I am From, “I am from Kelly, Henebry, Burke, Scully. Hill. Mulligan. Cullinane . . .” Inheritance is Kelly’s ground, her personal landscape holding disturbing secrets too, “…the quagmire…where Pop played, in nineteen hundred and ten,/after the eviction, with his siblings.” but ends with an affirmation, a striking glimpse of how the dead inhabit the living, “I can see him, under my skin, in tailor pose – sewing/ – from where I sit on my yoga mat, just breathing.”

Martina Evans

Martina Evans

Martina Evans, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a poet, novelist and critic