The Hitting Game, Graham Clifford, Seren, £9.99
reviewed by Emma Lee
Graham Clifford is a master of the knowing, wryly observed, composed magazine-length poem with a wide range of subject matter: pin ball machines (the title poem), relationships, job interviews, hotel rooms, the best poem ever or technology. In ‘Restoring “graham”’ he imagines being restored to factory settings:
a couple of hundred high frequency words
in a West Country accent;
the smell of Talcum, and jumper wool
after a Sunday morning roasting pork;
shoulder-length hair, lighter from the sun;
flared second-hand 501s brimmed over;
the recurring dream of being able to back flip;
your hand making the Millennium Falcon
skimming hedges; TV warming up
in the next room; cloud-rammed evenings;
a long, plummeting cello chord
from the music on a cigar advert;
perpetual municipal shrubbery;
the phone ringing – it’s always for you;
freckles they say will fade but don’t
until you decide you want them
charting teeming constellations
even on your lips.
This program is installed as a failsafe.
The reference to “high frequency words” so apt for a teacher. Its dry tone, slightly tongue in cheek, and conversational rhythm is typical of the poems throughout. ‘Restoring “graham”’ is a satisfying stand-alone poem with humour linking the list of slightly uncool images and a mix of specific and general images so the poem is both personal and recognisable to appeal to a wide audience. Accumulated images carry ‘What I Really Want to Do’ as well. The poem’s set during a job interview, although readers never discover what job the interview was for:
He tells me about him: he loves opera.
His hands are thick and small and he’s perspiring
in the receding Vs and he writes
articles on interview techniques for IT graduates,
and reviews opera.
He doesn’t say for whom.
Sometimes he’s in Geneva.
He has a suit on. No tie: it is Saturday.
But what do I really want to do?
I hold my hands out, palms up.
It captures that sense of someone with no clear career path being offered an interview for which they are out of their depth because they know they can’t give the honest answer, “I need to pay bills and this seems OK.” But it doesn’t give any sense of the person caught in the dilemma. Readers can’t engage in the drama of the poem because they don’t know the narrator enough to know whether the job offer will be a good or bad thing.
In ‘Trying’ a partner asks the narrator about trying for a baby, telling him about the birth of a previous child. The first stanza:
You tell me there wasn’t one midwife
but you were visited by a set of four
on a rotating shift and when you split
like an overripe momento mori fig
it happened to be the nice one
with different David-Bowie eyes,
who stank of smoke,
telling you to breathe – like you’d forget!
In the second stanza the woman describes the feeling of the baby moving mid-pregnancy, like a moth fluttering. Readers never find out whether they try or not. Of course a writer may choose how much or how little to reveal about themselves and every writer draws on personal experience and I’m not suggesting that Graham Clifford should reveal more about his personal life, but the absence of information limits the longevity of the poems to one or two readings rather than rewarding repeated visits.