Herod's Dispensations

Herod's Dispensations

by Harry Clifton


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From the first estates of Dublin to the karmic wastes of northern China, this new volume by the eminent Irish poet Harry Clifton charts a course through the spiritual orphanhood, the loss and protection of innocence that define our new nomadic age. The poet has moved beyond middle age to revisit, in meditations on death and migration, the territories of the Far East from his early years, in a journey that parallels the geographical movements of the volume as a whole. These awe-inspiring poems capture the epochal nature of Herod’s Dispensations in both their modern and ancient permutations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781930630871
Publisher: Wake Forest University Press
Publication date: 04/01/2019
Edition description: None
Pages: 68
Product dimensions: 5.75(w) x 8.75(h) x (d)

About the Author

Harry Clifton’s poems have been translated into several European languages, and he also published a book of stories, Berkeley’s Telephone and Other Fictions (2000). In 2008, Clifton received the Irish Times Poetry Now Award, the most prestigious poetry prize in Ireland.

Read an Excerpt



These days, like the leech-gatherer In Wordsworth, I keep the wolf from the door Of indigence, and take the weather On the lonely moor.

The gibbet creaks in the wind. The body is gone.
Here comes a soldier, home from the war.
Napoleon, he tells me, is no more,
The work of healing is done

And the million sutures closed, below on the plain here the bloods are drawn.
I ask myself private questions now, in the dawn,

About women and poems, the impossibilities Of old age, dipping for pondlife in the rain As a child looks up to me.


for Catriona Crowe

First, this old clock. As I dismantle it,
A child of indeterminate age On the garage floor, the cogs and flywheels Buzz, the hour-hands race and stop,
Go back on themselves,
And I peer, like a little god,
In the workings of time. Steady,
The ticking starts, suburban days Falling into place Like memory. Glass front doors And front room windows Are black depths, to be looked into Afterwards, when the time is right.
But for now, each pebbledashed house Is a Freudian box of tricks,
Pre-conscious, locked in itself,
Respectable, safe, like Nineteen Fifty Six.

Pounds and ounces, pennyweights and grams —
A grocer's measuring instruments Sift reality, slicing ham And butter, trowelling sugar in brown paper bags For all of us blow-ins, on whom the hag Has roosted, the hag of Ireland,
Stateless ... Lord Redesdale,
Whoever you were, you gave us the myth of a State,
You left us your name To conjure with, on your sold estate,
And fled to England, clutching the deeds.
De Valera set us down here, and bade us breed.

A new generation. A clean slate For history to write on. Non-attachment Our middle name. Sleepless, we hear The cattle-drive, to the milking-sheds Of Stillorgan, in the early hours,
Like the lost morning of a mythic race Our fathers snore through. De Valera,
Give us our pasteurized milk, and cleanse our blood Of impurities. Banish the gypsy horses,
Their mounds of fertile dung,
From our gardens. Tinsmiths' fires Will burn themselves out, the caravan train move on —
Give us leave to live here ...
    O the pain

That first winter of consciousness —
Snowballs, tainted with copper sulphate,
Crash against my ears. The Zen command To awaken! Child, it is too late To run in tears to Mother.
She points to the orphans, filing through the estate From nowhere to nowhere, shadowed by Sisters Terrible in their winged headgear Out through the age of innocence, into the years Undreamt by De Valera, Connolly, Pearse.


The old fog calls

— Samuel Beckett

I never belonged in my father's house —
His unread Bible on the shelf My silent coming of age.
In the kitchen, pregnant pauses,
Whispering. Behind pages Of the Irish Times, the man himself

Hiding from Ireland in Ireland.
People used to call,
I remember, in the old days —
Musical instruments, coats in the hall,
Sectarian difference, shouting. Trays Of edibles, hand to hand,

As once in Joyce's Dubliners.
I ask myself now, would I want it all back.
Anything but, in the name of Krapp.
A hundred houses, back to back Against nothingness. Foghorn-blur In Dublin Bay, as a ship

From Liverpool or Holyhead Reversed through time into history.
The shouting has stopped, the whispering In the kitchen has died away.
I lift to my eye instead The spyglass in the Beckett play

And see, through the matte grey Of a Sunday afternoon Without God, Dun Laoghaire In focus, millions on a pier —
Those who can never do themselves in,
Those who can never pray.



The girl behind the bar is in love with you, do you know that?
Look at what happened to Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky —
Sad lives, early deaths, the world no better a place.

It is cold in the kitchen, but you feel nothing,
Reading ... The Russians, too, never felt their own weather In all those fictions. It came from inside them.

People out walking, on the East Pier,
Swarm in their thousands, ghosts of the Nevsky Prospekt.
Where do they come from? Where on earth do they vanish to?


Grey-haired now, the girl behind the bar Has given up on children ... And for forty years No one has disturbed it, the white cold silence of the kitchen.

The bollards are still grass-grown, on that other pier Across the water, where time stops And a decommissioned lightship rusts at anchor.

Half the world has gone to its death. But you,
You are still eighteen, the ice on the Neva Still unbroken, life unreal outside the hermitage wall.


Her beauty was cold to the touch Like marble. She was not there In flesh or spirit. Two or three words In a foreign tongue, and the rest Silence. On she worked,
Ignoring her own nakedness,
Her slavery skin-deep and her dream Off limits. And the streets Outside, the city cold around her,
Night growing out of nowhere.

Money and strange hours, a room.
There was a train once, through China —
Father to Mother, out of which grew Like a taproot, singlemindedness,
Detachment, lights in passing,
Distances ...
    That country Is everywhere, its separations Early, its children turned to stone.


I crossed them again, the Liffey And the Lethe, and there it all was,
The seventies, north of the river,
Nothing changed. The smells of food,
The same lit pubs, with a failed generation Drinking inside them, in a blue fug Clinging to the loose-stitch and the breast-swell Of a girl's pullover, who would go on To age, make children,
Break with the crises, the excitements Of Saturday night, for the grey of Sunday afternoon.

There were no more Sundays now But I smelt the docks, on the farther side of Lethe,
The ghosts of the transit sheds For cattle and emigrants, shipped to Liverpool —
Abbatoir of souls ...

Local color, raised to the power of infinity Once, long ago. Back then,
Staring much, I saw too little.
Now, a gull might cut right through me For all I knew, and everything be remembered Out of nowhere, the city reassemble itself From the ruins of the seventies,
I its soul-survivor,

And the bad poetry, the only real poetry,
Still being sold, from an upstairs loft On Middle Abbey Street, by a dropout From the future, loose-stitched, heavy-breasted,
Careless of second comers. Mnemosyne,
Daughter of memory.


A thought of that late death Took all my heart for speech

— W.B. Yeats

My generation, dropping like flies —
At least in Stalingrad There were ruins, a battleground.
Here, the buildings rise,
The minds collapse. As John of God Slides by, a halfway house

For the saint, the suicide And the family sacrifice,
I stay in lane, in the living tide Of windscreens and car-bonnets,
Deaf to the silent cries,
The incoming round with my name on it.

The offensive has begun.
A woman walked into the sea Just yesterday. A man was hung,
Self-hung, from the hook of desertion There behind suburban curtains,
Disbelieving in victory.

Anne and David, Geraldine —
Enough that I drive by Once in a while, at the violet hour Of medication, Gethsemane hour For the hero, the heroine.
Let me leave you where you lie

Undecorated, even by God,
The children of a neutral state Who went down fighting, hand to hand,
With your own shadows, self-destroyed,
Caught in the suction of the void That let the city stand.


A Shanghai night-poet Keeping Chinese hours Looks across the lights of Dublin At the sleeping powers

On western time. A little wine But mostly tea, exfoliating Leaf by strange green leaf In earth-dark, where the soul alone

Drinks to itself in the windowpane.
After Mao, the masses, slaughter,
Brotherless, the lonely daughter Of the Policy of One

Is staring out, through bloodshot eyes,
At emptiness a Trappist monk Might waken to, and never blink In time or history. O for advice

From that strange soul-sister Out of Asia, someone new,
A veteran of Anabasis,
A follower of Chuang Zhu,

A Gnostic at the hour of sex Who sees through all the books ...
She must be sleeping by now,
Her hair cut straight across her brow,

Her dregs brewed out, her left brain's Dreaming mind a hemisphere Ahead of me, already night In Shanghai as I write.


Mainly remembered for the wind that blew Beneath her door, as the negotiations,
Not difficult, continued ... Sheepdogs too,
Barking, whimpering for admission

From the big cold, the distances outside,
The hinterlands. How it would be in winter We could imagine — Aga stove at center,
Two small children taken in her stride ...

Egg-whites, spreading evenly on a pan,
Their yolks unbroken (ours the brokenness).
Telegraph poles, an infinite succession

Over the skyline. Somewhere about, her man,
And flesh as grass in the wind, that summer day —
Hardly selling, giving her eggs away.


Marriage is the monastery of our time

— Leonard Cohen

She liked the jug, because it was cracked.
If it had a flaw It was perfect. Under God's law It was made whole by what it lacked —

Or so you tell me, matter of fact,
As you water a whisky Last thing at night, or sweeten Darjeeling tea With the milk and honey of tact.

How many decades now Since we entered the enclosed order Of ourselves, to raid and replenish the larder Of imperishables? The marriage vow

Grown ordinary, seems to keep house And break bread with us, through and through,
At communal vespers for two Like a hidden spirit. Patient Therese,

Our patron saint of the infinitely small,
Examines the wedding plunder, stainless steel,
Anything bedsheets might reveal The morning after ... Total recall,

If it ever came, would be shattering as a mirror We stand before daily,
Man and wife, success and failure —
Childless love, imperfect as a marriage

Or that fissured jug, its flaw that integrates A world around it, so you say,
A world left behind, for the Little Way Of ovulins and fetherlites.


She left me a tax letter, on the table.
Deal with that, she said. Unopened,
Unread, it lay there, hours on end.

Something Roman, I said to myself,
Sent from another realm, to bleed us dry,
The people of the spirit, her and I.

A name, a telephone number. Yellow paper,
Dry, official. I would never get through To anyone real, with my unresolved question.

Nor would it go away. Like Caesar Or the State, a moving shadow As the pen moves, the shadow of a hand,

A man and his shadow, co-writing,
Simultaneous, in invisible ink,
Two histories, of Israel and of Rome.

How many massacres, I wondered,
Deserts and messiahs, Herods, Pilates,
Tax collectors with inviolate souls

Had it taken, for this privileged trance I lay back into, abdicating everything,
To exist? No answer necessary

I might have told her, at eleven,
As she left, through the extra-temporal door.
Now, as I finish this, it is almost four.


Sixteen years we lived among alien people,
Cities without bridges to be burned,
Uncertain roofs — protecting ourselves, a couple Gone into hiding, who would one day return When the balance of power changed, and the attitudes.
Meanwhile, strangers were kind. The terrible places,
Unexpectedly, were generous with food,
Indifferent for the most part, sometimes even gracious.
And to this day, our books on the shelf,
Our suitcases unpacked, I ask myself If ever it might happen again —
Protection of innocence, Herod's dispensations,
Transit lounges, midnight railway stations —
No, not even whether, only when.


Whoever they are, they hate it. They're afraid —
The man of foreign extraction In the second row, and the woman beside him Out of Ardmore studio, following the action,
Clutching his elbow. " ... Die, you shagging bitch,
Or take off back to Crewe across the water —
Do you hear me?" Listening, the daughter Backs towards the audience, stopping barely an inch

Beyond the double glaze of pity and terror,
  The pair of them.
Again the voice of a mother, through the terrible mirror Held to the nation. "What did you ever care For Irish freedom? ... Your father, the I.R.A. ..."
A trembling hand pours tea, from a real pot,
In mythic space. A distant radio plays.
They're dreaming of the interval, like as not,

That mystery couple ... Sure enough, it arrives,
The space of enlightenment Everyone here has swung for, in a previous life —
The liberal buzz and murmur, Synge's rioters Gone quiet for an age, between the acts,
In changing motley, waiting. Her and him The interval bell as certainly drags back To earlier darkness, as the lights again grow dim

On old age propped on pillows, tea turned gin,
  A table set for one.
Will anything change? Will anyone burst in From a better world "Oh Christ, I thought you were gone ..."
To work white magic? Lonely on a wall The lights of a passing car. And time crawls,
The daughter listens again. "That radio,
Turn it off ... It was all such a long, long time ago ..."

And no, they do not like it. They're afraid,
  Wishing themselves in bed,
Far into each other, a million miles away On the other side of Abbey Street, Burgh Quay,
Bursting through traffic and rainfall,
Grimed cafés and savage pubs, and the laws Of iron necessity, to a curtain-call Beyond Ireland, a freedom without applause.


I love only art, children and death

— Alexander Blok

A literary man blows in from Cork On literary business. Glad of a chat In the lonely hour between the end of work And the railway station. This and that —
Divorces, second families, his book And the pasting it took in last week's Irish Times,
And still, one goes on writing ... Coffee, talk,
The long perspective. Some day, when it comes,
There will be no one, in the latening roar Of an age that passes. Only Heuston Station —
Transients, plastic tables, paper plates,
The crumbs of controversy, reputation —
Only the provinces, out past Inchicore,
The children's children, and the train that waits.


I, Heinrich Heine,
No longer or not yet In favor, decline In this lazaret

Of Paris, attended By a peasant childwife,
Her infantile mind Still believing in love.

Outside, no greenery,
Only a street.
Serves you right,
The Volk would say,

For heaping ironies On our Black Forest trails,
Our darkness, in Harzreise,
Germany: A Winter's Tale.

Alone among German poets,
The critics harangue Me, you never wrote A decent drinking-song.

And those I defamed Disown me, withhold My inheritance.
Changing my name

From Harry to Heinrich,
I try assimilation,
No good, in the current mood —
Cosmopolitan! Stinkjude!

Disintegration Of the lower spine —
Six mattresses Support you, Heine,

More than the rise of nations.
You were never one of us,
They tell me. Your country For you, is syphilis,

The tertiary stage.
Deaf to the call Of a new, heroic age,
I turn my face to the wall,

Prefer disease And living women To the kiss of death,
The anthologies.

London, 1992


Neary's, Chatham Street

They slipped out the back, through the stage-door,
Cut in here. Old bottles, lining the shelves,
Tobacco-smoke, the noise ... For half an hour They could be their real selves

As I remember them, with the greasepaint off.
Always the actor must fail In the last performance, coat-trailing,
Legless, having his cough

Loosened, his pockets shaken down ...
I watched, invisible for years Up here in the gods, as the laughter-drowned,
The tragic, the cast in order of appearance

Burnt themselves out, like the legendary gas lamps Along the counter — growing into my role Of opera phantom, prompter through a hole At Method, Stanislavsky or High Camp,

Only needing words and whisky-breath,
An art-girl or a leap of faith,
An interval, a space between the acts To contemplate the truth, if not the facts.


If the Greeks experienced despair, it was always through beauty and its oppressive quality

— Albert Camus


Graham, Paul and Robert, lost at sea Between dreams of art and a weekly farmer's market,
Pedaling into the wind for all these years,
And Louis too, and Mannie, warped like trees Outside each others' windows, in the mind-darkening Onset of Atlantic drizzle, pocking the Ice Age lakes —
You're only the latest ... Take yourselves to bed Or leave forever. Either way, bring food For an island interlude, where the spirit breaks Like whisky on the rocks, in the Hotel Amethyst,
Waiting for clearance, and the high blue days Of space into vertigo, vertigo into space —
Everyone else half-drunk on Irish mist,
Stumbling home, through a world of appearances.


The disconnect with the landscape,
The vacuum, you would say,
From man to nature, far Dooega Through to Dookinella,
Brings out the drinker in each of you.

You are sucked out, like an egg,
Through your own eyes Into azures, greys,
Which, if you understood them Properly, would be horrors of a kind.

And yet, you stay on the island,
Painting. Years pass Unchanging, the mountains in the distance,
The sea at hand, the canvases Accumulating,

Priceless, worthless.

Others, trying too hard to see,
Get drunk on air, and shoot themselves From loneliness, despair —
The huge inscrutability,

The island, with its question.
Words are too social,
Too intimate. All eye, no mind,
Where the anti-poet thrives,
Is what survives.


That most vulgar of crowds the literary

— John Keats

Sick of that bloody poet, everywhere Smart casual, urbane and circumspect,
Choosing his words with a little too much care To be real anymore, command respect Or say a single thing worth listening to,
It came to me the only road to go
(Not martyrdom) was sheer, deliberate death Made to seem like accident — too slow To be suicide, too chaotic for myth To be shaped of it afterwards. Satires? Odes?
No, silence. And the Roman gods Discredited, through whose eyes,
At too many wine receptions, weighing the odds,
I watched the art of perfect compromise.


Excerpted from "Herod's Dispensations"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Harry Clifton.
Excerpted by permission of Wake Forest University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

To the Next Generation 11

Redesdale Estate, 1956 12

Endgame 14

The Accursed Questions 16

After Mao 17

Across the River 18

Ruins 20

Daytime Sleeper 22

The Egg-Wife 24

Therese and the Jug 25

Before Christ 27

A Flight Into Egypt 29

Pity and Terror 30

Art, Children and Death 32

Disfavor 33

The Stage-Door 35

The Achill Years 36

Horace 38

The Bible as Literature 39

At Racquets 41

The Pit 42

Wreckfish 44

The Dry-Souled Man 46

Trance 48

Auden in Shanghai 50

Anabasis 51

From Red Earth Sequence 54

Zhoukoudian 59

Come and See Us Sometime 62

To the Philippians 63

Toronto Suite 64

Ballinafull, 3 July 2014 65

Death's Door 66

Goodbye to China 67

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