Cliff Forshaw left school at sixteen and worked in an abattoir before studying painting at art college and developing an interest in languages and European literatures. After various jobs in Spain, Mexico, Italy, Germany and New York and freelance writing in London, he completed a doctorate on Elizabethan satire at Oxford. Since then he has lived in Snowdonia and Yorkshire and taught at Bangor, Sheffield and, since 2005, Hull University.
He has been a writer-in-residence in California, Transylvania and Tasmania, twice a Hawthornden Writing Fellow, and a winner of the Welsh Academi John Tripp Award. He continues to paint and his work has been exhibited in the United Kingdom and the United States. He has also made two short films to accompany poetry collaborations: Drift was shown at the Humber Mouth Literature Festival in 2008; Under Travelling Skies (Kingston Press, 2012) won the first Larkin 25 Words Award in 2012.
Cliff Forshaw also writes fiction.
“The term “Vandemonian” refers to Van Diemen’s Land, and Cliff Forshaw’s sixth collection focuses on its inhabitants, both human and animal, newcomer and Aborigine, to piece together a fragmentary history of Tasmania. The first section moves from the island’s mythic beginnings as Trowenna, through its discovery by Europeans and the subsequent destruction of native peoples and wildlife as it becomes a penal colony’s own penal colony. Here there are songs and ballads for Trucanini, the last full-blood Tasmanian Aborigine, and also sonnets for the Tasmanian Tiger, officially declared extinct, but living on through folklore and unconfirmed sightings.
The poems roam wider and eventually fetch up on the mainland. ‘A Ned Kelly Hymnal’ reflects on the legend of the famous outlaw, its use by artists such as Sidney Nolan, and its ambiguous ubiquity as a symbol of Australian identity.
The book concludes with ‘The Shoal Bay Death Spirit Dreaming’: an elegy for one whitefella victim of the Australian sun. The poem considers death and displacement through the disorientating effects of modern travel which foster oblique reflections on a famous aborigine artwork, the huge collaborative painting by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and his brother Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, The Napperby Death Spirit Dreaming.”
“An imagination like no other, transforming the world you thought you knew.”
– Jon Stallworthy
“The high energy of Cliff Forshaw’s poems makes me think particularly of Donne and the other Metaphysicals: argument, wit, erudition and force of feeling all working to convey an authentic vision of the world we live in.”
– Christopher Reid
“As always, Cliff Forshaw’s writing embodies a large intelligence. These are poems of voyage, exertion and discovery, enjoying the challenge of unpredictable and unusual locations, both geographical and psychological. At the same time, they demonstrate grounded, dependable craft. They never trick the reader, but, witty and exuberant, send us on our poetic journeys with new imaginative maps.”
– Carol Rumens
They shut your trap. The warder said nowt,
bundled you – poor bugger! – into dark.
This monkhood turns grasses Trappist:
dumb cells, down there no light, no noise, no talk.
Without the light, it’s all bad dreams, blind faith.
You touch the wall to feel the world’s still there.
For days you wheel over landless seas.
You pray for Sunday: clanks, chains, the key.
But now, felt slippers, the guards’ steps muffled,
you’re hooded with a beak, prodded, shuffled
(damp-smells, echoes) towards a sniff of sun,
air, black on the back of your neck and hands.
Sunday, each man in his privy wooden stall,
you take your only communion in the swell
of hymns. Each soul can shout himself out
from his little wedge of God-pointed dark.
You sing your name: it fills your throat, your mouth;
not sure what is echo, what is prayer;
once more you’re wheeling over what brought you here:
Roaring Forties, that ache of nothing to the south.
You work. Pick oakum in solitude.
In the yard you’re hidden by a mask
that twists each jail-bird’s face into beak.
Nothing to say or do, but Work is Prayer.
You do your bird. You do your time. Keep shtum.
Keep nose clean. Keeps hands to yourself. Keep mum.
One day in the yard, a man runs head-first, mad
against the wall. Falls, gets up, head-butts
his way, almost through brick: again and again,
you hear skin and bone on stone. That crack.
It echoes down the months. It fills your cell.
Your mind’s eye colonised by the twitch
of a wounded bird, the way it fell;
how blood frothed cobbles, sun smirked along its beak.
Suddenly One Sunday
Port Arthur, 28 April 1996
Suddenly one Sunday
a man goes into the Broad Arrow Café,
hands out the punishment to all and sundry.
Full of tourists. Bad timing, very tough luck –
to coincide with some long-simmered grudge
and a semi-automatic. Faster than Shit! Fuck!
The newly articulate rhetoric of an AR-15
making its incontrovertible points with thirty
rounds of well-considered disputation in each magazine,
pressing home the argument with a leg or shoulder.
Quiet lad, bit of a loner.
Back of neck, spine; exiting splinters of bone.
The chorus to that song keeps growing longer:
Columbine, Virginia Tech, San Ysidro, Aramoana,
Hungerford, Dunblane, Killeen, Fort Hood, Utøya.
A number you can’t get out of your head.
Eighteen wounded, thirty-five dead.
The thylacine or “Tasmanian tiger”, the world’s largest marsupial carnivore, originally native to continental Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea, was declared extinct in 1986. Though deliberately hunted to the brink of extinction throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it was given the status of protected species two months before the last documented tiger died in 1936 in a Hobart zoo.
Attempts to clone the thylacine, using DNA from preserved specimens, have so far proved unsuccessful. The tiger has assumed a popular mythic status in Tasmania, with unconfirmed sightings continuing to this day.
62 seconds of the extinct thylacine on film
Within the box, it growls, it twists,
scowls through its repertoire of tricks,
ignores the camera – or gurns up close, turns
again, to flop, to gnaw that paw-trapped bone.
It paces out its trap of light; one hundred reps
while hindquarters zither bars of sun;
claws cage’s mesh, hangs stretched
as if to take the measure of itself.
You saw. You see. And what we’ve got is what was shot:
short clips, fragments caught and stitched
together in a loop of black and white.
Nine lives? Not quite. It’s down. It’s out.
It’s on its feet and born again. Like a repetition
compulsion, like … like reincarnated light.
Extinct, this creature’s everywhere
from CD sleeves to bottled beer.
With trademark stripes, it zebras out
between the gums’ abstracted light.
They’ve even tigered my hired Mazda’s plate.
Everything’s branded. Tasmania – your natural state.
Now you see them. Now they’re gone.
Did this tiger’s go-faster stripes
aid recognition in the loping pack?
Eucalypts, eucalypts at speed,
late sun flickers through those trees:
at the tarmac’s edge, off-cuts of fur, strange weeds.
Billboards, stores along the newly-metalled road:
ironic ads, that hide’s barcode.
The Bottom Line
Tarraleah, Wayatinah, Catagunya, Lake Repulse,
Zeehan, Strahan, Teepookana, Marakoopa, Crotty Dam,
Lileah, Nabageena, Savage River, Blackguard’s Hill.
Out of Queenstown, down the Franklin,
at Cradle Mountain, the Walls of Jerusalem,
one one the banks of Pieman River,
past the place they named Corinna;
unconfirmed sightings at Misery Plateau, Gates of Hell
On the road to Wayatinah,
hard to tell in scratchy rain
if what stripes dusk’s a mangy
dog, its ribs all chiaroscuro hunger,
or weather rubbing landscape out.
Or, the passing place, where headlights catch
what crosses track – that flash glimpsed in the paddock,
head down low, salaamed to dirt:
bowing or praying. What you see at first
is resolved, from something grumbling an argument
with the earth itself, to some long-snouted thing
with life between its teeth, its dragged-back iffy twitch.
For days, that nervous stuff all looks like prey:
a lope that’s dopplered through the boles of trees,
is there … there … there, is disappeared.
And all around, the bottom line goes:
Tarraleah, Wayatinah, Catagunya …
Past the place they named Corinna,
what you hear is ghosts, ghosts, ghosts …
from Vandemonian (Arc Publications, 2013).
Order Vandemonian here and here.
Visit Cliff’s website.