Review of Harry Clifton’s Secular Eden: Paris Notebooks 1994-2004

Jason B. Jones

Wake Forest University Press, $15.95 (paperback)

If the point about Edens is that they imply a fall, then the salient biographical fact about Harry Clifton’s Secular Eden would appear to be his return to Ireland in 2004 after living abroad for many years. We might well expect the book to contribute to the long, fruitful tradition of Irish ruminations on exile. And Clifton does write in this tradition—”Icy Pandemonium” is a good example, and his poems about travel also seem related.

But the title poem reminds us that in a secular Eden there’s nothing to fall from. There’s “No guilt now, only vertigo / To the end of time, if anyone stops to think.” Time is vertiginous without the telos supplied by the Fall, and so Secular Eden tries constantly to locate itself in time and history, and also to recover a sense of being outside time. There may not be guilt anymore—he imagines the “hard, ironical laughter” of a postcoital woman at the concept of “supernatural terror”—but he’s old enough to know that there is most certainly judgment:

. . . Without knowing it

I was in at the death, and the frozen moment
Flows right through me, cold, electric

Ever to be present. Is it memory
Or the last Judgement? Time will never tell.

Harry Clifton was born in 1952, and Secular Eden—winner of the 2008 Irish Times Poetry Now Award—is his first book of poems since The Desert Route: Selected Poems 1973-1988 in 1992. Nearly every page finds, celebrates, or makes a meaning in a world that is constantly threatening to unravel, or even just to continue on without reference to human purpose.

Lest there be any doubt that Secular Eden voices a middle-aged perspective, let me acknowledge straightaway that there are poems about kidney stones, or, rather, “the slow gravel / Of inner breakdown.” Clifton identifies himself briefly with Stendhal at forty, raising toasts “To middle age, to social disrepute / To absolute honesty, and the pleasures that pass / Backstairs, that everyone knows about, / No-one mentions.” (One of those backstairs pleasures ought to give anyone serious pause about staying in hotels.) Clifton’s honesty has to do with his tolerance for ambivalence. Here, in the middle of a conversation with his partner, he suddenly intuits the meaning of fetal development:

. . . And I saw it, an embryo

Setting out blindly, our mythic lines
Foreclosing around it, as the ancestors

Hovered, the living and the dead.
A million selves were crowding to a head

Inside me, each with its separate hope

Of not being nothing. And the unsaid

Broke through, with “How many years have we left?”

The substitution of “foreclosing” for a more predictable word, such as coalescing, nicely updates Tennyson’s famous line about “Of fifty seeds / [Nature] often brings but one to bear,’ and anticipates the way sex and new life and death all converge at the end of these lines. Clifton can’t decide whether middle age is a fall from grace or an era of hard-won insight, and his poetry’s great strength is his ability to bring these possibilities together.

It’s a minor point, but Clifton has a way with Freudian phrases. Here he is on merely appetitive sex: The anticipated woman will be “Conducting you towards release, / The old, regressive peace / That was always better imagined than real, / Always unreachable . . . .” I’ll concede that there’s something false and decorous about the lines—the sex isn’t always better imagined (though sometimes the pleasure lies in fantasy or in anticipation, a different point), and the ellipsis signaling the incompatibility of cognition and coition is somehow both trite and reserved. However, there is a life here, too, in the interplay of release and regressive, real and unreachable, that nicely drives home the idea that sex only asymptotically involves a partner. In this context, regressive is less an intrusive bit of jargon than a means to underscore the return inherent in release. He pulls a similar trick elsewhere when he describes the smell of coffee & Gitanes as “the fumes of sublimation”—both ingenious and lovely, and again, it raises the technical vocabulary of Freudianism into something far more concrete. In yet another poem he imagines “the mind / Worn down, like ancient stone, / By repetition, and monotony, / And the endless patter of the ego.” The surprise here comes from the reminder that the ego is not the only source of repetition—indeed, although we might be prone to imagining unconscious desire as anarchic, there is usually something depressingly iterative about it.

If there is anything to lament in so satisfying and graceful a volume, it is one of tone. Clifton writes almost always in the plainchant that’s recognizably poetic diction, which is both beautiful and gives his poems a kind of authority. As a result, there are moments when the poems invoke the vertigo of modern life in language that is absolutely grounded, which is a bit jarring. However, this is far too ungrateful a note upon which to end: Secular Eden is a magisterial book, one that should re-introduce Clifton to a wide audience.

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