Among the more unusual relics of the fishing industry in Hull’s maritime museum is a holed fragment of the trawler Mino, sunk off the Dogger Bank in October 1904. At the time, the Russian fleet was making its way from the Baltic to the Pacific the long – the incredibly long – way round, where they hoped to engage the waiting Japanese. Mistaking a group of Hull trawlers for enemy craft they opened fire, a mere 18,000 miles off target. Leaving two dead fishermen and an unseemly diplomatic incident in its wake, the fleet loped on down to Spain and Africa, into the Indian Ocean and finally the Pacific, where military annihilation swiftly followed. Among the crew on this epically futile journey was Flag-Engineer Eugène Sigismondovitch Politovsky, author of From Libau to Tsushima, published after his death in May 1905. Dredging Politovsky up from history for a commission he received from the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull in 1983, Douglas Dunn has made him the narrator of his book-length poem The Donkey’s Ears. It’s been a long journey for Politovsky this time round as well: after leaving the poem for many years Dunn picked it up again in 1997, about the time he found himself with lots of solitary evenings to fill, to judge from the dates attached to some of the poems in his other new collection, The Year’s Afternoon. Writing and solitude are strong themes in both books.
The Donkey’s Ears begins with Admiral Rozhestvensky’s seventy-strong fleet steaming out of Kronstadt to a backdrop of ‘tarsticky bumboats’, bunting, brass bands and hanky-waving womenfolk. Once out of harbour it doesn’t take long for Politovsky to size up his ship, the Suvorov, as ‘a leaking, battered, worthless ironclad’, and his junior officers as a shower of workshy good for nothings. Naval dilapidation has featured in Dunn’s work before, as in ‘Sailing with the Fleet’, a sort of maritime reworking of Larkin’s ‘At Grass’ with its final vision of ‘Such rust-reminders. Such steel. Such waitings’. The crew of the Suvorov know all about waiting. Apart from opening fire on passing fishermen (‘Our enemy is everything that floats’), life on the ocean has little to offer in the way of excitement, so while his comrades turn to vodka, Politovsky tries his hand at verse. As you’d expect, he’s read his Pushkin, Tolstoy and Chekhov, but Politovsky has clearly dipped into Tennyson too, since his narrative is written throughout in In Memoriam stanzas. His verses, however, are not an elegy but a letter to the wife he has left behind. That’s the theory, though minute descriptions of naval repairs and battle strategy wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of husbandly billets-doux. But then again he is writing into a void, or near void: when a telegram comes from Sophie, it contains the single-word message ‘Well’. He isn’t tempted by the fleshpots of French Africa or Nossi-Bé when the Suvorov drops anchor; rage against futility and injustice is his real passion, and he gets ample chance to indulge it.
Politovsky’s personable impersonality is typical of Dunn. In a recent prose piece, ‘A Difficult, Simple Art’, he writes of aspiring to a Bachelardian ‘non-I which belongs to the I … a non-egotistical first-person singular’. For Dunn, though, the poetic subject has rarely been anything but the result of some sort of to and fro between the I and not-I. His 1969 debut, Terry Street, is a classic example, and the sort of book for which the term ‘dialogic’ could have been coined. What to make of this English slum cul-de-sac with its ‘Old women … wiping in doorless toilets’, ‘street tarts’ and greyhound-keeping trawlermen? Just as importantly, what did they make of him? Peering at the mature student Dunn hard at work at his window, the local young women in rollers find ‘a specimen under glass, being protected,/And laugh at me watching them’. Except for a single moment of first-person plural solidarity, in ‘Ins and Outs’, the inhabitants of Terry Street are always ‘they’, not ‘we’, the suspicious observers of his high-minded and not a little priggish highbrow. Nevertheless, in a preface to the excellent Bête Noire edition of the book (1994), Dunn warns against overdetermining these poems about the ‘rat-coloured igloos of the Northern working class’. If he ‘didn’t get anywhere near to understanding the politics and poetry of the people and houses around me … A reason for this could be that they didn’t have any.’
A large dose of wary detachment, then, has always coexisted in Dunn with the more partisan instincts of his 1979 collection Barbarians (a book whose title Larkin, by then a little deaf, misheard as ‘Librarians’, complimenting him on his choice). Finding the politics of that book layered on too thickly, the American poet Dave Smith described the effect in terms strangely reminiscent of life on board the Suvorov: ‘a show of skills which has, too often, the feel of trial military manoeuvres with no apparent enemy’. But in many ways The Donkey’s Ears is unusual for the political opportunities it fails to exploit: there is no description of the battle of Tsushima (Japanese for ‘the donkey’s ears’, by the way), even though Politovsky died in it, and only muffled noises off from the social unrest in Russia before the 1905 Revolution. The very good reason for this is that the fleet itself is a perfect political microcosm. Sedition festers under the equatorial sun. The Oryol’s doltish skipper dumps his entire ship’s library overboard and mutineers are shot or – the lucky ones – abandoned on the coast of Madagascar. The sailors work off their resentment on ‘fifteen thousand emigrated Jews/In Cape Town’, Politovsky himself confessing to ‘anti-semitic silt/Clogging my brain and active thoroughfares’. But soon enough he is redirecting his animus against the cruel ineptitude of the tsarist system: ‘For what’s the difference between pimps and Tsars/ Who pack men off to fight on distant seas/ And treat them badly as a lower species/And cheat them in imperial bazaars?’ The sight of the slave trade at work among the decadent ‘fruit-eating French’ of West Africa further hastens his political education, reminding one of Fred Boettcher’s world tour of misery and political injustice in Les Murray’s Fredy Neptune. The fleet is, in both senses, a moving image of community, all the more so for representing a social order about to be swept away by war and revolution. The different ships have strongly individual characters depending on their reputations for discipline, music or drunkenness, and to the envious Politovsky some appear positively snug in comparison to the Suvorov. But there is no mistaking the rare moments of light relief for anything other than the camaraderie of the damned.
Being a flag-engineer, Politovsky is kept fairly busy, to the point of falling behind more than once with the running repairs to his verse. The In Memoriam stanzas don’t always serve Dunn well: a couplet like ‘While officers of guns boast of the rate/ Their magazines served shells up to them at’ turns its quatrain round with an awkwardness to match any Dreadnought. ‘Self-censorshipped’ may deserve a momentary smile for its nautical pun, but leaning on it as a rhyme word for ‘tight-lipped’ stretches the joke to breaking point. Despite a few misplaced nuts and bolts, and even if the narrative sometimes chunters rather than glides along, The Donkey’s Ears is an emotionally rich and sweeping experience. ‘A language is a dialect with an army and a navy,’ Dunn quotes from Max Weinrich in the introduction to his 1992 Faber Book of 20th-Century Scottish Poetry, in answer to the casual snobbery of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Was there a Scottish Literature?’ Never again can Scottish literature be accused of lacking its navy.
‘Parrot Islands’, from The Year’s Afternoon, presents an altogether more benevolent vision of life at sea, as Robert Louis Stevenson launches Dunn on the ‘Seven Seas’ pollutionless stretches that wander for miles and miles’. The ending is unblushingly nostalgic: ‘Ah, Stevenson, your pages pleased me as a boy./Now that I’m not, I weep over them, and with joy.’ It’s only one of several poems in which he takes time out to cheer himself up before the next lurch (never very far away) into anomie and dejection. Dunn is still in his fifties, but between its clutch of elegies and morosely ruminated poems of divorce, illness and solitude, an air of premature senescence hangs over The Year’s Afternoon. ‘Three Poets’ elegises Norman MacCaig, Sorley MacLean and George Mackay Brown, a list to which he has added Iain Crichton Smith in the dedication of One Hundred 20th-Century Scottish Poems (2000), a sampler from his earlier Faber anthology. Again the cheering conclusion: ‘Let us drink to them. Then let us drink to them again,’ recalling MacCaig’s answer to people who asked what he took with his whisky (more whisky). One of his lecturers at Hull University, Margaret Espinasse, is lucky enough in ‘Teachers’ to ‘leave behind the present of a laugh’. Why, there’s even a poem called ‘Art is Wonderful’, though the irony doesn’t take long to kick in. In poems like ‘On Whether Loneliness Ever Has a Beginning’ and ‘March 13, 1994’, the forced smile cracks and he joins the ranks of what an earlier poem, ‘Midweek Matinée’, calls the ‘men who are not good at life’; but I’m not sure Dunn ever really gets to the bottom of what’s wrong with him. There is something stiltedly doleful about the poems’ retrieval of a happier past for slippered contemplation. In one of the best poems in the book, ‘1996’, it is the bad smell and its painful associations that stay in the memory rather than the peach tree image with which Dunn seeks to expunge them:
The Expelair in the lavatory –
Relentless thing – is a better orator
Than I would want to be. A piece of grit
Adds whingeing to its sucked-out smell of
The same old switched-on stinking story –
Rhetoric, excrement. Better by far
A peach tree’s blossom in its world of
Which asks no questions as to why or how
Silence suffers in its empty city where
Stenches of grief defeat its Expelair.
Good as the magazine was, ‘Bête Noire’s edition of Terry Street with Photographs by Robert Whitaker’ must go down as one of the least appealing titles since Geoffrey Hill’s ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’. It’s one of the last poems in The Year’s Afternoon – and one of several that revisit Dunn’s time in East Yorkshire, usually under the tutelary guidance of his dead first wife. In ‘Larksong’, from Elegies, Dunn wrote of ‘the down-below of England’ from a bird’s point of view, but for a Scottish poet England will always be ‘down below’ in one sense or another, a zone not just of larksong but of Larkin-song too. ‘East Riding’ begins ‘You wouldn’t recognise the place. It’s changed’ – to which the poet replies, ‘For me, though, it can never cease to be’. Even with the predicate he provides in the next line (‘can never cease to be /Outlandish shadows, all it was …’) the echo of Larkin’s ‘Show Saturday’ (‘Let it always be there’) is unmistakable. In a 1987 lecture on the older writer, Dunn spoke of producing poems as a ‘blurred xerox’ of Larkin’s, and over the years the blur has drifted in and out of focus. Nowhere in The Year’s Afternoon is it plainer to see than in the final poem, ‘Indolence’, which presents itself irresistibly as a rewrite-riposte to ‘Aubade’.
The references are hard to miss: a hedgehog in the garden, carefree butterflies encouraging Dunn to throw away his book and wonder if he shouldn’t ‘get off my butt and do something’, having to get up for a pee, and contemplating all the other things he can do on his own, ‘not one’ of which ‘means “work”’. Larkin, that ‘nine to five man who had seen poetry’, needed his ‘toad, work’ to spare him the terrors of the blank page, especially in the years after ‘Aubade’, when blank is what the page remained, no matter how long he stared at it. But between Dunn dropping his book to enjoy the ‘controlled irresponsibility’ of his day off and Larkin’s ‘books are a load of crap’, or his desire to take off and ‘swagger the nut-strewn roads’, lies a world of difference. After the inspissated gloom of the earlier poems in The Year’s Afternoon, cheerfulness wins out in the end. Safe in his library, Larkin’s fantasies of idleness spoke for a darkly, nihilistically irresponsible side of his character. Dunn’s, by contrast, articulate a vision of Horatian, languorous plenty. If ‘it’s time to do nothing’, it’s not because there’s ‘nothing to be done’ anymore, but because he hasn’t had a day off in weeks. Larkin’s hedgehog ends up dead in the blades of a lawnmower; Dunn’s walks happily past ‘like a self-propelled handbag’. Larkin’s walk to the loo for a piss at 4 a.m. prompts a vision of the ‘strength and pain/Of being young’, still vivid for others but over for him. Dunn skips the walk and simply takes his piss there and then on the lawn, spraying his book while he’s at it. Larkin’s card players inhabit a ‘secret, bestial place’ of leisure, but when Dunn dreams of inventing a card-game or board-game for one, he does so without a trace of guilt or fear: it will be called ‘“Time on My Side”, or else “As I Like It”’. He isn’t really alone either, ‘laughing with Lillias in the summer-house’; and ‘dozing in Vienna over coffee’ beats crouching in bed as ‘light strengthens, and the room takes shape’ (‘Aubade’ again) any day. Unlike Larkin, Dunn gives every impression of being a writer confident that the poems will keep on coming for many years yet. Maybe art really is wonderful after all.