The profundity of the bus pass
POETRY: Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have My Being By Paul Durcan Harvill Secker, 157pp. £12
PAUL DURCAN’S new collection is his 22nd. He is a prolific poet, and as he nears a venerable three-score years and 10, his prodigious output shows no signs of slowing. While Derek Walcott, in his most recent collection, White Egrets, worried about his gift as a poet “withering” in older age, and wondered if he might have to abandon poetry “like a woman because you love it / and would not see her hurt”, Durcan becomes Monsieur le Poète and celebrates his free-travel pass with an emphatic and quirky gratitude, brandishing it in order to share a sense of “Recognition, / Of Affirmation, of Participation”. But, riding “the docklands of Dublin like Don Quixote”, the almost manic delight Durcan takes in what he has elevated to a rite of passage is tempered by a more cautious note after he meets a “naked, aged jogger” with a “flamboyantly toothless grin”:
I needed badly that lesson in humility.
I needed to be taken down a notch or two.
I walk the rest of the way home along Pigeon House Road
Patting my breast pocket, my Free Travel Pass.
It would be just like you, old boy, to go and lose it
On your first day at school.
The humour here is gentler than in previous collections, less savage and satirical. At other times, the humour is flatter and a more insistent inflection enters the poem together with a shower of exclamation points that sometimes threaten to drench the reader with their clamorous entreaty. Morning Ireland, Be Warned! is one example. Another is the poem I have already heard people calling “the Amanda Brunker poem”, an opening jaunt that has the speaker of the poem witnessing the “cool arrogance!” of the “author herself! Amanda Brunker!” signing her book at Hodges Figgis unsolicited. The curious Durcan takes down her book to read the first paragraph:
Why did I have a full Irish breakfast?
It’s as if I am mechanically programmed to make the wrong decision
At every opportunity.
Such candour, such detail, such insight, such information!
And all in the first paragraph.
The story of my own life.
The bookstore epiphany creates a crisis of mock-existential proportions,
Why did I park on the fourth floor of the multi-storey car park
When I knew if I parked on the sixth floor
I’d have direct access to the supermarket?
It’s as if . . .
Why did I get up at 9.30 am
When I could have stayed in bed all morning?
It’s as if . . .
The conditional refrain “it’s as if . . .” becomes a mantra to the absurd frustrations of day-to-day life. Durcan can make poetry out of the most seemingly mundane encounters, although it can be hard to know if some of the poems work better in “performance” than on the page or whether many people will know who Amanda Brunker is.
The absurd also appears in other poems, but mostly the tone is of a Durcan “inexplicably at peace”. One English reviewer suggests rather archly that Durcan’s work “reminds one of what virtuosos the Irish are at small talk”, but Durcan has transformed the encounter and sometimes the anecdote into his own kind of poetic material, fetishising one encounter after another. At one time, the poet meets an Algerian Berber, another time the actor David Kelly, another time a woman from Tbilisi. Durcan, in his poems, meets people all over the world, in New York, Chicago, Brisbane, Dublin, Achill and Paris, where he is not afraid of quoting The Rough Guide.
And yet Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have My Being is also a book of public utterance and ceremony. Brian Friel, Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney feature in poems of tribute. And the number of elegies is considerable; they appear “in memory” or “in memoriam” to Nuala O’Faolain, to Valdi MacMahon, to Helen Barry Maloney and many others. Other poems, such as Death of a Corkman, echo Michael Hartnett’s Death of an Irishwoman. In it Durcan creates his own litany of remembrance, in this case to Junior Daly:
He carried under his arm the headlines
Of the history of the world in the twentieth century;
He was a private man in a public place;
He was a glass of wine in a hand every hair of whose wrist
His woman knew as she knew every willow tree along the river in Sunday’s Well
Walking at evening
On a rope bridge made for two.
He was a Corkman.
Some of the best poems, though there are perhaps too many for one collection, are ekphrastic. The series on the work of the painter Veronica Bolay stands out and confirms Paul Durcan’s oeuvre as a poetry of encounter, of sidelong glances and exuberant strangeness. It’s impossible not to take into consideration Durcan’s other work, and while Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have My Being does not scale the heights of vintage collections such as The Berlin Wall Cafe or Daddy, Daddy, there will be many pleasures here for Durcan fans and aficionados.
Paul Perry’s latest book is The Last Falcon and Small Ordinance (Dedalus Press, 2010). He is curator of Poetry Now at Mountains to Sea, the Dún Laoghaire book festival