Secular Eden: Paris Notebooks 1994–2004
Harry Clifton
Wake Forest University Press, $15.95 (paper)

When the Irish poet Harry Clifton won the prestigious Irish Times/Poetry Now Award for his magnum opus Secular Eden in 2008, Colm Toibin called him “one of the best Irish poets working now,” and Fintan O’Toole described the book as “arguably the first great work of Irish poetic post-modernism.”

Still, the book has received surprisingly little attention in the United States, where enthusiasm for Irish poets tends to run high and where they have long provided a high-protein supplement to native produce. This despite opportunities galore for American readers to become acquainted with Clifton’s work. Poetry magazine has been hospitable to his poems, and he has been included in several American anthologies, including the Wake Forest Series of Irish Poetry (2005). An eerie little poem published in The New Yorker by Paul Muldoon, Clifton’s near-exact contemporary, does not appear to have inspired a wider circle of readers to pursue the handsomely made, poorly distributed book.

But even when I chanced upon it in a Dublin bookstore last year, it was wrapped in an unmarked white dust jacket and sealed in plastic. Writing this belated review, I have an almost physical sense of breaking ice and shoveling snow, in the hope, as Derek Mahon expressed in the Times Literary Supplement, that “Secular Eden should win [Clifton’s] work the attention it deserves.”

At 200 pages, Clifton’s fifth book of poems runs nearly as long as all of his previous collections combined. The fruit of a decade spent in Paris with his wife, the distinguished novelist Deirdre Madden, Secular Eden is a sequence of five “notebooks,” each devoted to a period between 1994 and 2004. In a thematic sense, too, Secular Eden contains at least four books: a celebration of a loving marriage, a philosophical inquiry into the consequences of the decline of Christianity in Europe, an exploration of and a coming-to-terms with Ireland and the pain of personal and national pasts, and a travel narrative embracing not only France but sites and cities elsewhere in Europe, Australia, India, the United States, and Africa. Paris provides Clifton with an Archimedean point of leverage for all this, a spot where the strands come together, forming, as the book builds, a dense and complex tissue, solid as bone.

This solidity is a product of Clifton’s formal discipline and of the deliberateness of his thought. His poetry has little of the exhilarating zaniness and wildness of Muldoon’s, and in terms of poetic form it bears few of the marks associated with postmodern poetry. The poems’ daring lies almost entirely in their philosophical direction, in their approach to the problem of living in a postmodern age, in their stubborn refusal to fudge their answers. Secular Eden sets sail for elusive destinations, conscious of its own gravity, more ship than plane, more submarine than ship. When it detonates its charges, it is often as if under water, swelling gradual waves.

One fine example is “Reading Saint Augustine,” which reads a bit like a short story about a Monday morning, the speaker and his partner settling down to work:

Huge stanzas, on the end of the world,
Were crowding in like weather, scudding cloud
And changing light, on Monday the twenty-third
At the breakfast table. Light of heart
And casual, with the working week ahead,
We went to our rooms. Again, the traffic noise
Outside my window. Quieter, outside yours,
A garden, finches, at the back of the house.
And this we called our discipline, our art,
Internal, focused, warding off the powers
Of dissolution, each in our own small way,
Ideal or real, sufficient unto day.

In leisurely but rhyme-tautened stanzas, the poem opens with the subtle interplay between the City of God and the city of man, human longings crossing paths and illuminating each other. Clifton has an Auden-esque knack for glossing intellectual stances on the fly, describing the writing of fiction as “Incorporating gardens into the Garden,” “Abandoning Logos, cultivating Psyche.” At the same time, his dry reportorial wit can evoke Phillip Larkin: “Eleven thirty. Carthage and Thagaste / Long since fallen, knew their gods had failed.”

Clifton also has an interesting dialectical bent. Two poems before “Reading Saint Augustine” in the second “notebook” (taking us up to the spring of 1999, certainly a year of apocalyptic speculation) we find a very different one, “The Bath House,” also invoking Augustine. Whereas in “Reading Saint Augustine” the apocalyptic images of a “sacred book” yield to the sounds of “real life,” and the “final word” is ceded not to God but to women—the wife in the next room and a woman in an adjacent apartment restoring her face after a night’s guiltless erotic adventures—“The Bath House” presents us with the physical realities of the “real life” of the bath house from which a young Augustine emerged into sainthood, leaving the secular world of his “fathers” behind, “human, discredited even then / In the centuries of the body.” It is the young Augustine of the Confessions, not the saint of the City of God, who is the more authoritative figure.

Harry Clifton reserves especially withering epithets for forms of secularism that regard themselves as absolute.

For Clifton, the longing for transformation—or for freedom from that longing—is always more interesting than anywhere one might comfortably call home. Thus Ireland itself is the spiritual center of Clifton’s book, an Ireland so crammed with meanings, so overdetermined, that it must be kept at bay, visited only at intervals and with a return ticket to Paris in a back pocket. It is through the book’s poems on Ireland—places, people, memories and myths—that Clifton moves toward a satisfying balance between the dramas of history and selfhood. The beautiful poems on (and often for) family—wife, grandparents, parents, and a devastating poem “About Children”—form a crucial link between national history and personal myth. In the strongest poems, less is spelled out, though one senses that it is the narrative poems that make the others, those more purely lyrical, possible. The narratives methodically sweep away what Osip Mandelstam called the “noise of time,” creating a space in which the pure lyrics can sound, each word clear, resonant of many worlds of meaning, precise, concrete. This is perhaps most evident in the book’s penultimate poem, “The Mystic Marriage,” presented here in full:

The fountain is stopped now
That made its water-noise
Into the small hours. Years ago
You thought it was rain,

Now, you sleep through everything
With the window open—
Late night jazz, a couple quarrelling,
Headlights, one mosquito.

‘It is three o’clock
In the morning. I am going
To the lovers’ bridge
In white mist, without you . . .’

I wake from that dream
Towards daybreak. You beside me
Still sleeping.
You were never a dawn person.

The fountain is on again.
Whole years have passed. And still
We have never left the south—
From which, if ever, each returns

Eternally changed, or not at all.
A white noise of swifts
Outside. Swallows sipping
Old dregs of misery—

The drained glass on the wooden table
Slowly filling with light.
And suddenly, a crash of bells
From Saint John of Malta

Hard by, and two flights down,
Approaching, lifting the spell,
A river of children’s voices
Growing and growing, out of the future,

• • •

Pure annunciation. Just in time
I retrieve it, like a dream transcript—
Our mystic marriage. Something, at last,
Has earthed itself inside you.

As a poet whose mythos is built around transformation rather than transcendence, Clifton distinguishes carefully between transformations that are fleeting and shallow and those that leave the self permanently altered. One poem, “At Saint Jacques,” is particularly illuminating in this regard, for here the poet catches himself mistaking one for the other. In a scene strongly reminiscent of an episode in Henry James’s The Ambassadors, a man watches a woman in a church, taking her first for a secular visitor, “one of the post-religious, like himself.” Upon realizing that her piety is genuine, he sees his mental undressing of her is an “intrusion” on her “Absolute nakedness” before God. As in James, after the comic effect of the scene wears off, one is left to question to what extent a “watcher” capable of this response can be truly “post-religious,” and whether such watching is not itself a valid form of spiritual life.

Clifton reserves especially withering epithets for forms of secularism that regard themselves as absolute—the oracular pronouncements of Parisian TV philosophers, the “apokostases” of store windows, the notion of scientists and engineers as “masters of the globe.” For Clifton, secularism, properly understood, is a divestiture, a pilgrimage toward what he describes in “The Whaling Station” as “the pole of pure unknowing.”

• • •

Although Clifton’s influences are many and farther removed from Ireland than Auden’s and Larkin’s, it is impossible to read him without thinking of Derek Mahon, in particular the famous “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” in which the likely “places where a thought might grow” are the most impoverished, remote, and abandoned. One also senses in some of these poems an affinity with Wallace Stevens (on whom Clifton did graduate work). Clifton seeks in the most diverse circumstances the conditions for the imagination to operate, to create meaning. These conditions bear a resemblance to the state described early in the first “notebook,” that of French soldiers waiting for war in Europe’s “Drôle de Guerre”: “Feverish from our typhoid shots / We were cold at centre.” This state recurs in various forms; in a way, it is what is most French about the book, the combination of hot senses and rational chill, life in an anxious void, bombarded by propaganda. The phony war is a rich emblem for modernity.

But the ambitious project of Secular Eden involves a step beyond that, a sorting through “secondhand images” to find what is central to the human imagination in the 21st century, to distill trace elements of tradition that retain an authentic resonance. On top of everything else it is and does, it performs a critical service, revisiting and in certain cases reviving neglected links in the Western poetic tradition. Clifton offers rich responses to Hart Crane, René Char, and Samuel Beckett, but also to the short and lesser-known lives of poets Keith Douglas, Kenneth Slessor, and Benjamin Fondane.

As we might expect, the poems-in-tribute are finest when they are least reverential. “The House of Pierre Loti” in particular is as elegant, and merciless, as a Borges sonnet:

Now that the times of travel and writing are over
And a cuckoo calls across the estuary
Like an epilogue, and nothing is left to discover,
Exotic or banal, on land or sea,

That hasn’t already been hung like a tapestry
In his fabulous rooms, or spun like yarn
As long as the ropemakers’ sheds in the Admiralty,
Or said goodbye to, or welcomed on its return,

Let us honour the empty house of Pierre Loti
Who went by so many names, so many disguises,
Occident, Orient, anything to get free

Of second childhood, staring death in the face,
His whitewashed walls around him like horizons
Closing in on the old illusion—space.

His portrait of the German poet Gottfried Benn has special force because it feeds into the book’s overarching meditation on “gardens and the Garden,” returning to the desire to get back to a place behind or before history. This is where the title of the book acquires its full paradoxical meaning: In “Doctor Benn,” the garden “On the plot of wasteland // Between ruins” may be the truest and most terrifying image of what a secular Eden could be, its innocence post-apocalyptic.

“Victrola Music: Hart Crane 1899-1932,” by contrast, seems a bit clunky. And while the Romanian-Jewish Francophone poet Benjamin Fondane is a wonderful and tragic figure worth the honor of concluding the book, I am not sure that even the six heavily-packed stanzas of “Benjamin Fondane Departs for the East” can do the job of summing up an extraordinarily complex biography and world of thought, a whole era (“Paris between the wars”), the murder of European Jews, and Clifton’s Paris sojourn. Asked to perform that trick, the poem ends up sounding both too breezy and portentous. If it had been placed earlier in the book, it might have struck a different and more nuanced tone.

Indeed, one of the few reservations I have about this book is its tendency to collapse all forms of movement into a vision of modernity-as-rootlessness. It’s a concept so familiar as to flirt with banality, and it hardly does justice to the subtlety and complexity of Clifton’s mind. It is not that he explicitly equates travel with expatriation, with exile, with deportation—he is too sensitive and conscientious a poet for that. But the cumulative effect of the book is to suggest that Fondane’s “departure” for the concentration camp where he will meet his death is simply the most extreme of many “displacements” on a continuum that includes Clifton’s own experience and (in the least charitable reading) redounds on him.

This is a real problem for poets responding to catastrophic history, and particularly to the Holocaust. Few are able to achieve the level of detachment required for a view free of self-importance; it seems to me a diabolical problem of tone and balance.

I prefer working through history to any denial or evasion of it, which simply lowers the stakes for poetry. The themes of Clifton’s book, all major themes of Western poetry—love and marriage, guilt and faith, home and belonging, art and war—resonate more powerfully for being caught in the dense web of history. The brief (and, for Clifton, mainly private) moments of liberation from that tangled web are then the more deeply experienced and richly earned.