Lifesaving Poems: Cliff Yates’s ‘Boggle Hole’

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This has already been a memorable year, for I have seen my old friend Cliff Yates twice, both at poetry-related events. This increases my average sightings of Cliff in any given year by about 2000% and is a cause for clebration.

Cliff popped into my head again this week. He had emailed me a piece he has written called ‘Flying: A Poetics’ and wanted to know what I thought. It is lovely, and very typically Cliff, by which I mean it is generous and thoughful and gently provoking. Its subject is how the writing of poems itself becomes the experience or the subject of the poem.

If you do not know his work, you could worse than start with Frank Freeman’s Dancing School (Salt, 2009). Reading the poems in this book, from which the poem below is taken, is a bit like watching the best kind of slapstick comedy: each gag is inevitable, hilarious and sad all at once. In his poems you see the wooden plank on the shoulder of one man as it spins around, misses his friend as he ducks out of the way then catches him in the face on the return circuit.

What Cliff also shows us, and this is what give the poems a special kind of resonance, is the following shot where you can catch the same man scrabbling around on the floor, looking for a contact lens, perhaps, or perhaps just scrabbling around on the floor. Cliff does not moralise or attempt to persuade us what this might mean.

‘Boggle Hole’ is funny, and lyrical and a bit sad all at once. I do think it displays Cliff’s unique way of looking at and experiencing the world. I think the established trope to describe an oblique take on experience is now ‘surreal’. This is not quite true of Cliff, since his poems are not voyages into the unconscious, even though there are unusual juxtapositions to be found (horses chewing at bike tyres, a donkey drawn on the sand).

In his own way I think the view ofEnglandthat Cliff portrays is as distinctive as those created by Hughes or Larkin:

There used to be

smugglers here and someone wrote ‘LULU’

four feet high in the slipway’s wet concrete.

It is a vision of inbetween places, where nothing much happens or promises to: where the horses snack on bike chains, boats are called Freedom, dogs run sideways, and the seaside donkeys are virtual.

 

Boggle Hole

 

Two new mountain bikes chained to the fence,

three horses lean over, bite at the tyres,

get the chain between their teeth,

eat most of a saddle and a handlebar grip.

 

Boggle Hole Youth Hostel and someone

has written ‘welcome to BOGGLE HELL’

on the bottom of the bunk above this one

in red felt tip and shaky writing.

 

A gang of bikers comes in late – a bottle

smashes outside the door then it’s quiet

but for the talking, distorted, muffled

through the wall, apart from that voice…

 

After breakfast a tractor tows a boat

named Freedom into the sea. There used to be

smugglers here and someone wrote ‘LULU’

four feet high in the slipway’s wet concrete.

 

Freedom is oil-grey, just below the horizon

when a dog tears along sideways, its tongue out,

tasting the salt on the wind, and, in the first

drops of rain, a boy draws a donkey in the sand.

 

Cliff Yates, from Frank Freeman’s Dancing School  (Salt, 2009)


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