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Portobello Sonnets by Harry Clifton – fluent and humane

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Memories mingle with the pace of modern Dublin in a wry, sophisticated study of change

Portobello Sonnets opens with a quotation from Patrick Kavanagh: “In the third age, we are content to be ourselves, however small.” This seems disputable; less so would be the proposal that if “we” manage to reach the third age (and Kavanagh scarcely did) we must make what we can of it. Now in his mid-60s, the poet Harry Clifton focuses on Portobello, a district of Dublin bounded by the Grand Canal, by whose waters Kavanagh’s statue sits in contemplation of a city that is small in comparison with Shanghai or São Paulo but hugely capacious as literature. You would think the canal bounded a continent. It is enough to be going on with.

Clifton, having returned to Ireland from an itinerant career as poet and teacher, devotes his sonnets to observation and memory. The effect is to populate the place as much with ghosts as with the living. He begins by asking: “Are you not scared, young man, of your daddy’s ghost / And his before him, waiting here to greet you, / Latest of blow-ins, ready to try again?”

His work is ridden by time and the sense that there is nothing new except the capacity for seeing the world afresh

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