Thomas Roberts reviews Welcome Back to the Country by Graham Clifford

Welcome Back to the Country
by Graham Clifford
31pp, £5, Seren Books

There is a lot to like about Graham Clifford’s first pamphlet, Welcome Back to the Country which has been published by Seren Books, the imprint of Poetry Wales. Others would seem to agree. It won the Poetry Wales Purple Moose Prize. Several of the twenty four poems have appeared in respected publications and/or won competitions or been commended.

That said, the country which Graham paints is far from Eden although it is closer to a modern day Paradise Lost. It’s the equivalent of a rusting Ford Sierra, jacked up on bricks, in which teenagers might sit on a Saturday night to smoke a joint. Nor is the desolation confined to the city-or-land scape. It permeates the human relationships. The Welcome Back is wry.

One of the strongest features of this pamphlet is Graham Clifford’s use of language. There is a smootheness, a sensousness in the way he writes and his aural sensors seem very much turned on. In the opening stanza of “Their son“, he starts,

Their son pulls out tissue with his purse. It’s one
of those horseshoe shaped ones
with a leather tongue to shake pennies onto.

Graham’s weaving of sound appears natural – in any event it does not follow a formal pattern (nor do his poems) and the high standards of sonal weaving are maintained throughout. Another example is in “Gourds”,

One time it was gourds
that surfaced like Mongolfier submarines
in her pea and spud patch.

The above stanza shows another feature used by Graham to good effect: mixing a sensuous sound with a hard consonant (and word) that brings the reader firmly back to earth. In the above stanza, that word is spud. In the stanza below, from “That song”, he introduces something more ominous,

I fried sausages to pass time
then watched a sitcom about hospitals
that started exactly as they slit you open

“That song” is one of the most successful poems in the pamphlet. One of the reasons for this is its (apparent) simplicity, its smooth language and the sense of intimacy between the “you” and “I” fostered by, amongst other things, an attention to detail. So Graham later writes in “That song”,

Nights later, you switched on the radio
and that song flowered
from floppy stalks of headphone leads
and perhaps it was the morphine, or your body rejoicing to be
relieved of several septic inches,
but the music gleamed, you said, like sunlight.

However, not all of the poems share this simplicity or clarity of narrative development; and that is to their detriment. There is a sense that many of them have a few too many items of clutter or pose unanswered questions unintentionally, which detracts from the reader’s enjoyment.

So in “Their son” (with an emphasis on the son of two parents), Graham’s verbal camera focuses on firstly, “their son”, then the mother and, in turn, a check-out girl; but the second parent receives no further mention (and there is nothing to suggest to the reader the father‘s absence is being commented on). In “On a slope”, Graham addresses his lament about life in a country town to a “you” but this appears to consist of humankind more generally who were children that you used to be. In the poem “A”, which would lend itself to simplicity in its description of the intimacy (in a proper sense) between a teacher and child, at least a third person appears at the beginning (with the word “us”) and performs little (if any) further role later.

There are also several occasions where the syntax is clumsy and again, this detracts from what is otherwise enjoyable work . In “Obvious Constellations”, he writes I never don’t have some part of either foot in contact with the tarmac at any one time (emphasis added). In “Silt“, A shower of high speed morse / on the sunroom’s cracked plastic / tells off of you in forensic detail (emphasis added). In “Being Dead”: you die, and being dead  / are better (emphasis added).

The pamphlet reveals a powerful imagination which can take the reader literally out of this world and which it does on several occasions but this is not just scene setting, there is an overriding sense of escapism in many of the poems.

In “No alternative now”, the voice in the poem suggests to a partner growing a forest and hiding in it. However there is again uncertainty about the narrative development with the penultimate line which brings the reader, for one line only, away from the natural nirvana (albeit a spoilt one) to dreams of an apparent cityscape with sharp cars and eat[ing] from tins.

In “Holiday”, the voice in the poem imagines living permanently in a holiday destination away from the mundanity of daily life in a small town (unnamed). Both “The (very) end” and “Rocket Dreams” also make references to space travel.

The fantasy in many of the poems however gives a sense that the work is not firmly rooted in the here and now. What is marked is that an intimate conversational style and good attention to landscape detail (all positives) is not matched by detail about human relationships. There is a sense of skirting round the edges.

By way of example, in “The year of rain”, six stanzas describe the physical environment and whilst they also make reference to two people who clearly share some intimacy, we don’t really get beyond the basics. The balance between the attention given to objects and the physical environment and that given to human relationships feels out of kilter.

At the beginning of this review I referred to the desolation within this work by analogy with a Ford Sierra jacked up on bricks. Some of the actual descriptions are worse. In the title poem, “Welcome back to the country”, the tone is set by,

There’s nothing open but newsagents
and one garage for twenty miles.
A ruddy old sod toe-punts
his dog where ribs aren’t
because it won’t stop chomping grass

(in other words even the dog gets it!).  In the poem “Nowhere fast”, Graham describes how Windows go like this: glass, bars, nets, gloom containing people.  Similar tones are set in “Short”, “On a slope” and “Dispersal of a Writer“.

There is clearly a cynicism at work and in high doses, which will either appeal to readers or which they will dismiss as the unrealistic portrayal of a glass half-empty mindset. But maybe this is the reality of a recession-scarred Britain? On the other hand, maybe it’s not.

Thomas Roberts is a poet based in London where he works as a lawyer. He is originally from County Antrim in Northern Ireland and is also a songwriter.