Any collection containing a piece called “The Best Poem Ever Written” has already thrown away its safety net, its right to complacency under scrutiny. Presenting such a direct challenge to any reader (or, indeed, any writer) slaps down the gauntlet; the work simply must be good. Highly commended for various poetry prizes, Graham Clifford’s reputation implies that he may just get away with it.
Other titles he bestows upon his works also provoke curiosity, albeit for different reasons. “How to Hurt” and “What I Really Want to Do” insinuate that some personal insight is to be gained from their author, whilst “A Man Who Had Formed His Adult Self According to Questionable Parameters, Initiates Change” begs to be read simply for the sake of satisfying the mysterious convolution of its name. The titular poem refers to a test-your-strength punchbag arcade game, the “even if” lines at the end lend a reflective gravity and sadness to what is otherwise a humorous poetic anecdote. Rather than reading from cover to cover, I picked off poems in the order in which their titles took my interest.
Clifford’s poetry is all about tactile imagery. The phrase “urban poems” on the back is an astute summary of the sort of conceits employed here, objects flying in and out to serve in figurative comparisons. There is nothing flowery or ornamental about this imagery either; each verse is densely packed, each metaphor essential. Lines such as “Orchids blurt livid smears” (“Stealing Summer”), thick with consonance, slow the eye and the tongue and demand to be read slowly and thoughtfully.
The most conspicuous technique used by Clifford is his persistent hyphenation of both conventional and unusual word pairs, creating a verbal concatenation that feels somehow Germanic. An outstanding example is the second stanza of “Newborn”:
Dimmer switch screwed almost shut
we are stock-still
nocturnal desert-mammals, saucer-eyed,
cramping in thunder-struck poses.
Her spider-leg eyelashes
rest on a web that has us while she dreams
the leaf-edge of her country.
Though focused on image for the substance of his poems, Clifford ensures they fall pleasingly on the ear. Consider these lines from “Silage”, invoking sibilance, assonance and alliteration in quick succession:
Sleep, slick as silk sheets, slid off.
Churning, low cloud murmured
with Tartrazine landing-light
and revving engines reflected
over a bull-dozer-ed dyke[…]
Many of the poems seem to hark back to Clifford’s childhood, or that of an imagined other. The most obvious example of the former is “Restoring [graham]”, a witty and poignant conceit describing nostalgia as “revert[ing] to factory settings”. The minutiae of the narrator’s memories, from “Sunday morning roasting pork” to “your hand making the Millennium Falcon / skim hedges”, are delightfully evocative. He also captures well the intricacies of his characters in very few words – a shy teenager serving him tea in a café is “wrecked by puberty”, “a skinned nerve, / a child in a man-suit”, with “eyes like bullet holes” (“Skinned”).
Other verses draw inspiration from Clifford’s work as a teacher in East London. “What I Wrote” is a tragicomedy in miniature, of a pupil being interrogated about an undefined affront to his teacher scrawled on the back of a jotter. The narrator’s mortification is keenly portrayed, as the headmaster “churched his fingers”, and the word “slow” is given its own line, to accentuate the pain felt in having been made to recite the insult aloud. On the other side of the student-tutor relationship, “The Oxygen Thieves” is a meditation on how pupils live to regret paying insufficient attention in class, and how, when the narrator teaches, “it is to the space above each / as if the adults they will be are there”.
And as for “The Best Poem”? It’s passable, even good in places, but it’s not even the best piece in this book. It’s just as well that trading standards do not apply to writers.