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Wake Forest University Press

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“Malingering at the Heart of Things”: Review of Harry Clifton’s Portobello Sonnets

Benjamin Keatinge recently reviewed Portobello Sonnets by Harry Clifton in Breac, opening with “Ten rules for the returning emigrant” outlined by Michael O’Loughlin in a recent Irish Times article: “Rule number 1 reads, ‘Don’t come back,’ while rule number 10 reads, ‘Above all: don’t come back.’ As O’Loughlin reminds us, the treatment of returning Irish emigrants is one of the outstanding ironies of contemporary Ireland.” Keatinge traces the theme of exile and return throughout Clifton’s work, which he writes has been “widely admired for its searching poetic explorations of an ‘original homelessness’ … which problematize the dialectic of exile and return.” His review focuses largely on how Clifton’s work in Portobello Sonnets struggles with homecoming, while also celebrating and illuminating “much smaller and more limited horizons” than in his previous collections—”the local, after all, encapsulates the universal and to celebrate the parish is not to exclude the wider world, far from it.”

Keatinge continues:

In all of this, there is a contrapuntal sense of place and placelessness so characteristic of Clifton’s work. … In Portobello Sonnets, we can identify plenty of local streets and place names, but the detachment of Clifton’s poetic voice and its articulation of “[t]he private” poetic realm with its mebditations on “loneliness, death” is very much the fulcrum of this collection.…

But there is nothing small about Clifton’s poetry. C.K. Williams has praised Clifton’s capaciousness, his use of “geography, landscape, cityscape, repeopled precincts of the imagination,” an expansiveness of time and place, past and present, thought and word. Portobello Sonnets takes its place among Clifton’s “repeopled precincts of the imagination.” The same “masterful formal dexterity” also praised by Williams is very much in evidence in these sonnets which are effortlessly woven. For Clifton, it no longer matters where one locates oneself or ones writing; as he says, “placelessness is the ideal.”

Read the full review online at Breac: A Digital Journal of Irish Studies.

Portobello Sonnets was published in 2016. Read more about Harry Clifton on our website.

Harry Clifton
Portobello Sonnets | Harry Clifton

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