REVIEW by Alicia Byrne Keane

NWR Issue 105

The Hitting Game

by Graham Clifford

In Graham Clifford’s poem, ‘What I Wrote,’ a scrawled insult written on a textbook precipitates a complicated, ambiguous exchange with a school headmaster. Graham Clifford’s collection of poetry, The Hitting Game, certainly demonstrates the impact of words: their explosive, problematic power, their ability to generate endless multitudes of implication. These poems bring to mind the potency of language, its ability to convey the richness and immediacy of experience even in the most minimally sketched scenes. Having won the 2006 New Writer poetry competition, the Poetry Wales Purple Moose Prize, and the Biscuit Publishing Prize 2008, it is clear that Clifford’s unusual talent is being recognized.

In terms of subject matter, there is nothing too unfamiliar at play in this collection. Or rather, at first glance, these poems tackle relatively universal themes. Clifford depicts the ordinary: relationships, technology, holidays. We witness the dynamics of parenthood and childhood, job interviews, illness. However, The Hitting Game depicts the sensitive, emotional side of such situations, treating issues we generally shy away from discussing in a fresh and uncompromising light. It is also notable for the way it consistently and unexpectedly crosses conceptual boundaries.

Any divisions we may make – between the modern and the primal, the cynical and the naïve, the familiar and the strange – are blurred by Clifford’s nuanced and imaginative perspective. In ‘Newborn,’ the wilds of nature are juxtaposed with modern life. In ‘The Hitting Game’, primal aggression is triggered by the repetitive entertainments of an amusement arcade. The boundaries between nature and culture are rendered unclear in creative and unexpected ways: in ‘Talking about Gravity with Great Danes’, animal instincts and human inventions are blurred, the laboured gait of an old dog likened to ‘a Dutch barge turn[ing] into waves’.

In a similar manner, these poems oscillate between a childlike innocence and a jaded urban cynicism. ‘Bitumen and Rust’ charts a journey through a bleak, dystopian cityscape, only to be tempered by glimpses of ‘baby blue’ sky and clouds like ‘bath foam’. Similarly, ‘Amazing’ is a breathless account of family conversation. While the banal annoyances of everyday life are listed, the poem has an ingenuous quality, leaping from topic to topic with childish, stream-of-consciousness agility.

Clifford’s unusual use of language and imagery helps with this blurring of boundaries. These poems often come across as dreamlike successions of jumbled images. They can be visceral, shocking even, due to their vividly visual nature, and they are often made yet more potent by their brevity. However, behind the chaotic façade lurks a clever descriptive flair. Clifford has the much sought-after ability to depict the familiar as alien, to orchestrate those rare shifts in perspective that encourage the reader to see everyday scenes in a new and unusual light. This is not without humour. In ‘Stealing Summer’, a sunbathing wife wears ‘a tin-foil collar / To encourage sunlight up her nose.’ Rotund older men are described as ‘pregnant’. These slightly surreal descriptions provoke instant recognition – we know what the poet means. Only, we never would have thought to express it that way.

It is equally important to recognize that much of the power of these poems resides in what the poet chooses to omit. Poems such as ‘What I Wrote’ and ‘In Love with Mr Jiggs’ make use of tantalizing ambiguity: in many instances, we feel as though we have been privy to something vaguely sinister, but we are not exactly sure what. Clifford often writes from a position of objectivity, eschewing any comment on the scenes he depicts. This shows great concision and economy of description – a multiplicity of interpretation is squeezed into the most briefly depicted scene.

Clifford’s poetry is eclectic and very original. These poems linger in the memory long after reading, due to both their quirky humour and their often unsettling, thought-provoking quality. Clifford’s scope as a poet is most definitely commendable, and I hope to see more of his work in the near future.

Alicia Byrne Keane is an Irish student of English Literature and French, currently resident in Oxford.








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previous review: Bloomsbury and the Poets & Life of a Counterfeiter
next review: Fauverie



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