Paul Cliff, ‘A Constellation of Abnormalities’ reviewed in Sydney Review of Books
Canberra, Schooled – review by Geoff page in Sydney Review of Books
Paul Cliff moved to Canberra in 1997. The Impatient World, published in 2002, was his first full-length collection. A Constellation of Abnormalities is, in effect, his second though he has six books altogether counting chapbooks. On Constellation’s back cover the late Noel Rowe describes Cliff as ‘Murrayesque in (his) capacity for correspondences’. Certainly, like Les Murray, Cliff has a high degree of individuality (some might say quirkiness), an egalitarian brand of compassion and a considerable wit but his end product is very different to Murray’s.
Constellation is not explicitly divided into sections, but, as the product of fifteen years’ work, there is a sense of development throughout. ‘Continuity with Change’, as the politicians would have it. One definite continuity here is a feeling of relaxation. Cliff’s poems are always as long as they need to be — and this applies to the book’s prose poems too which, to some readers, might seem to risk prosiness but which do not actually succumb to it. Many of the poems are leisurely autobiographical narratives; many others are similarly-paced dramatic monologues.
An early example of the former is ‘Himalayan Rock Salt’ in which the poet recalls the hardships endured by porters bringing sacks of rock salt on their shoulders down from ‘the cloud-shredding peaks’, through the tree-line and rhododendron forests to where the poet is at leisure to enjoy ‘its pure, salt-sweet deliciousness on (his) tongue … / … the true, precious taste of this earth.’ Though there is a passing reference to ‘education’ and the ‘study of a trade’ foregone by (or not offered to) the porters, Cliff is careful not to labour the ideological point the poem clearly makes.
A fine example of the monologue (and of the prose poem) is seen a few pages later on as Cliff assumes a sensibility totally unlike the autobiographical one in the poem just discussed. Matters of industrial justice are far from the mind of Harry Flashman, hero of George MacDonald Fraser’s twelve ‘Flashman’ novels, who has (probably deservedly, according to Cliff) fetched up at a ‘rag-tailed paradise crawling with Adventist & Presbyterian religious at the scrag end of the Imperial World.’ Here, among other denizens, our hero has to endure ‘braying packs of loud-mouthed Australians on diving tours’ while he savours (at a distance, these days) ‘the frisky fillies and lovely young mares trip(ping) their way to Sunday church.’
At times these narrative elements can produce something akin to flash-fiction — as in the title poem, ‘A Constellation of Abnormalities’. Here Cliff creates a nice juxtaposition of an ‘inexplicably foxy’ female cardiologist and her hapless, middle-aged male patient who suffers from the eponymous, though admittedly poetic, ‘constellation of abnormalities’. ‘Should 25 years’ intensive medical training preclude you from being a poet as well? At heart.’ The poem’s last sentence, with its brand name and jokiness, has a typically Cliffian tone to it: ‘ … she’ll need to kick this consultation along — and get her cardiological skates on — if she wants time to get home and tug on her Lorna Jane sports shorts and top and fit in her evening jog.’
Certainly, Constellation is a constellation. The variety of subjects, strategies and accents in this long-anticipated collection is impossible to summarise neatly. The comedy ranges from unapologetic farce through to oblique and sophisticated wit; the drama from political protest, through unalloyed tenderness to historical irony, a fine example of the last being ‘Traudl Junge at Noosa: the sea, the sun, the dictationist’.
Hitler’s ‘personal dictationist’ survives the war and in the early 1970s is visiting her sister at Noosa. The poem’s closing lines are another indicator of Cliff’s talent for tone and detail: ‘ … her shoulders start to burn, and she takes a last drag / on her cigarette, pushes it face-down in the sand. / Snaps her bathing cap on — stands and saunters light-hipped / toward her sister and niece who wave from the surf. // One life might bear all manner of strange fruit. / As it does for this ex-Hitler girl: / the dictator’s dictationist, at 22. / And now showing a leg at Noosa, thirty years on. / Still looking good in a two-piece swimsuit.’