Punning in the face of the void


POETRY:Dear Life By Dennis O’Driscoll Anvil, 109pp. £9.95

DENNIS O’DRISCOLL has long been a highly active and, especially in recent years, a highly productive literary figure. Since his New and Selected Poems, in 2004, he has published a volume of essays, another poetry collection and Stepping Stones, his acclaimed interviews with Seamus Heaney. Yet it still comes as a surprise that O’Driscoll, who is 58, has retired from his other life in the Office of the Revenue Commissioners.

This surprise is germane to any reading of his new collection, because the book marks a transition between two stages of life and the attitudes that accompany them. Dear Life is, surprisingly and one hopes prematurely, concerned with the end of life. Recurring themes are the way life “passes at a breakneck rate”, its perplexing preciousness, the threat of illness and, in several substantial pieces, Christian doubt. These would be big topics at the best of times, but here repeated revisitings suggest a genuine anxiety, a kind of obsessional reworking of a seemingly intractable problem.

God takes centre stage in at least eight poems. But this is not praise poetry; O’Driscoll’s God is by turns infuriating, evasive and absent. In Last Stand, “Impossible to pin down, he has fallen / as silent as the infinite spaces / that rendered Pascal mute”, while in Our Father, more daringly, “he was all take, / no give . . . / autistic in the distance / he maintained”. But the mention of Pascal is apt. For all their iconoclasm these poems seem to make the same wager. Most end with an abrupt confession of faith: in Fabrications, for example, “And every pulsing star will live / according to his lights”.

Poems of doubt or hard-won faith (which sometimes amount to the same thing) play an important role in the canon, from John Donne’s Batter My Heart, Three-person’d God to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Terrible Sonnets or, a more recent example, Herbert Lomas’s Letters in the Dark. But what’s unusual about O’Driscoll is that he gives no evidence of the struggle that moves us from opening accusation to eventual affirmation. His poems are not addressed to God; they don’t voice questions or doubts. Instead they are formed of series of statements, their tenor cool, even witty. Fabrications opens: “God is dead to the world. // But he still keeps up / appearances.” Two puns in as many sentences; and the book as a whole is marked by punning. Indeed, the volume title itself is a pun, or at least a retrieval of the phrase’s original meaning, one beautifully explored in the title sequence.

Puns make language face two ways, and are destabilising. And there is something tonally destabilised about this book, despite its tremendous coherence of style and topic. Sigmund Freud pointed out that such destabilisations occur at stress points: a Freudian slip happens when what we need to say trumps what we mean to say. When he takes a cheery tone with the big questions, it is as if O’Driscoll is trying to fend off all our fears. In writing about oneself this is brave, and his hospital poems move and convince through understatement. Admissions, the book’s penultimate poem and a kind of envoi, admonishes its narrator to:

. . . recall how glorious it seemed,

your unwillingness to let go, that evening

you were driven to Admissions.

Every shabby sight you passed

Gleamed . . .

Yet this technique sounds differently when applied elsewhere, as when God is “Silent as the tongues of dusty shoes / dumbfounded in the Holocaust Museum”. Those doubled puns indicate not callousness on O’Driscoll’s part but the insufficiency of human courage, of the kind his jaunty, rational writing displays, in the face of what used to be called the void. And it’s hard to believe that’s inadvertent when this whole volume is, as any book dealing with retirement and a health scare must be, concerned with the difficulty of moving from the workaday world, with its “susurrus of washroom gossip, // corridor banter”, to the new, shadowy and altogether more complex life that follows.

God, death and the meaning of life require a different, less quotidian language than the “stats to back up sobering / disclosures; an update on rebranding plans” that O’Driscoll aptly notes in Head Office, and abstraction has to be inhabited and realised as fully as the material world his poetry has often described with warmth and care. It is both telling and touching how animated a trio of workplace poems, Revenue Customs, appear in this serious context. His readers must wish Dennis O’Driscoll many more occasions of joyous engagement, so that he can bring them similarly to life in his human, accessible verse.

Fiona Sampson’s Beyond the Lyric: A Map of Contemporary British Poetry will be published by Chatto Windus in September

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