Subscriber OnlyBooks

New and Selected Poems by Ian Duhig: Heart-stopping, perfectly framed poetry

Hard to separate music from language in Duhig’s finely-tuned poems

New and Selected Poems
New and Selected Poems
Author: Ian Duhig
ISBN-13: 978-1529070804
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £14.99

Well, if I say to you your face
is like a slice of half-boiled turnip,
your hair is the colour of a lake's bottom
and at the centre of each of your eyes
is the mark of the beast, it is because
I want to love you properly, according to Dinneen.
(From The Irish)

Ian Duhig’s New and Selected opens with one of his signature poems, From The Irish, concise, funny, beautifully timed, wearing its scholarship lightly. It is two love poems in one – one for the beloved, the other for language itself, both Irish and English. This love of an organic, ever-changing language, of duality, of naming, lies under every Duhig poem. In the words of Patrick Kavanagh, “Naming is the love act.”

Duhig’s distinctive debut, The Bradford Count, introduced a fresh and  exciting poetic voice that developed exponentially over six dazzling collections. His ludic poems, steeped in Irish music, layered from the palimpsest of the dictionary, are akin to Ciaran Carson’s. Like Carson (and James Joyce), a storytelling, charismatic father is chief presiding muse:

When I told my Dad that the locals called
a dandelion an 'Irish daisy',
I'd have to admit he looked disenthralled
and soon his farts were "Yorkshire nightingales". . .
(Nothing Pie)


But if the labyrinth is Carson’s template, the road is Duhig’s. Carson’s poems circle around Belfast while Duhig’s are on the move (or perhaps the march – his rhythm and rhyme is infectious). This reflects his upbringing in Kilburn, the child of Irish migrants. In his essay The Road (which works as a fine companion to this collection), Duhig tells of his move from London to Leeds as a young man. Driving up the M1 into the unknown, he thought of the Kerry people shouting “O Thuaidh!” (“Northwards!”) to encourage sean-nós performers.

It is an apt description of his own poetic orientation, and it’s hard to separate the music from language in Duhig’s poems. Working in a homeless hostel as a young man, he set the stories he was hearing to the folk music tunes from the pub next door. His finely tuned quatrains bring the ballad to mind, especially when allied with his distinctive narrative themes – social injustice, history, politics, folklore – and his keen ear for the demotic: “I seed them Hirishers/ tumblin’ through the harches/ screachin’ “Murther! Murther!/ Out with them bloody lights!” (Babylon).

Via Negativa’s anaphoric plaited three-line stanza uses names to skewer racism, remembering the vulnerable Nigerian David Oluwale, hounded to death in Leeds in 1969: “Not Ambulare pro Deo but ‘Wandering Abroad’/ Not Ave Maria but Black Maria./ Not demonic visions but brain damage . . . Not the African Fathers but ‘the African Mind’./ Not Divine Spark but ECT . . . ” It ends surprisingly, perfectly with an old Leeds footballer’s chant, “‘And you shouldn’t trust a copper/ if your name’s Oluwale/ and you can’t find your way home.’”

Ink is a recurrent substance, sometimes conflated with “black and comely” stout as in The Albion, where Duhig drinks “to its alchemical ink”. In Roisín Bán, Irish workers on the M1 stay in Leeds where the road runs out, “in a pub we drowned with our black stuff/ when we laid the Sheepscar Interchange./ Pulped books help asphalt stick to roads . . . ”

The hare is a totem animal for Duhig, especially memorable in the title poem of The Lammas Hireling (2003), which took inspiration from Paddy Tunney's tale of a hare witch (minus the misogyny) and the middle English poem The Names of the Hare. This hare returns even more energetically in a response to the pandemic, The Names of the Plague,
the sick-tricker, the nit-picker,
the mad chatter, the foil-hatter,
the mask-hater, the nurse-baiter,
the flock-fleecer, the palm-greaser,
. . .the wrong richer. . .
the time-bider. . .
The parenthetical ending echoing Mark's Gospel is a heart-stopper, "(Its chief name is Legion.)".

The sense of return in the final new poem, The Parting Glass, is especially keen, an elegy for the homeless singer “Carrigfergus Bernard”, “Builder without cards, sweet-voiced sharp dealer. . . though not born Bernard, or from Carrickfergus,/ but a refugee from pogroms in sixties West Belfast.” Duhig’s preoccupation with framing, reflecting his love for cinema, is also a reminder of “Uncle Tommy” who “Drunk with Kodakry, he’d circle, then swoop/ on us between his cross-sights and the sun. . .” (Another Poem About Old Photographs).

Workers are his chief subject, whether navvies or the child straw-weaver Jenny Ibbens, whose “podgy fingers can trim the machine to blanch and stiffen blades,/ and she can shave each brimstoned rod into sixteen equal quills. . . ” (Straw School).

Duhig always honours the work, his respect for the crafter mirrored in the genius of his blade-sharp, erudite, egalitarian, perfectly framed poetry. Who can forget Bernard after reading this poem?

I remember him fixing our front room windows,
shuffling decks of glass, from struts taking panes.
I remember how utterly cold invaded my home
until he made it just a picture in its frame again.
(The Parting Glass)

Martina Evans

Martina Evans

Martina Evans, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a poet, novelist and critic