An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman

Damian Grant

  • Selected Poems 1964-1983 by Douglas Dunn
    Faber, 262 pp, £9.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 571 14619 8
  • Terry Street by Douglas Dunn
    Faber, 62 pp, £3.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 571 09713 8
  • Selected Poems 1968-1983 by Paul Muldoon
    Faber, 109 pp, £8.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 571 14603 1
  • Essential Reading by Peter Reading and Alan Jenkins
    Secker, 230 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 436 40988 7
  • Stet by Peter Reading
    Secker, 40 pp, £5.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 436 40989 5

Douglas Dunn’s Selected Poems includes the greater part of his published poems, from Terry Street (published in 1969, and reissued with this selection) through four more volumes to the widely acclaimed Elegies (1985). Terry Street and the two following volumes, The Happier Life and Love or Nothing, were well received as plain unvarnished poems of Northern suburbia: and now the inventory of working-class clothes, foods and pastimes has a certain period interest. This is the beginning of the end of that culture mourned by Jeremy Seabrook among others:

                                       A landlord stares.
All he has worked for is being destroyed.
The slum rent-masters are at one with Pop.

But there are obvious limitations to this vision, cued by the ‘stare’ here. These are poems of people watched, an alien species; often watched through windows (one poem, a contemporary ‘Statue and the Bust’, is actually called ‘A Window Affair’). These people can also watch back:

This time they see me at my window, among books,
A specimen under glass, being protected,
And laugh at me watching them.

Dunn seems trapped at this stage outside a two-dimensional world: ‘I grasp only hard things, windows, contempt.’ People are irredeemably plural, generic, abstract. There are too many ‘things doing nothing’, too much contiguity without connection; too many of the poems operate exclusively on the metonymic plane, without climbing the trellis of metaphor in search of another perspective. True, there is explicit sympathy for the old dying alone, for exploited husbands and overworked wives, for the young with their fragile illusions: but it is all cold comfort. ‘They’ are marched up and down their streets without much sensitivity, either imaginative or metrical; the flat caps are matched by a flat-footed rhymeless pentameter. Dunn reproaches himself in a 1981 ‘Envoi’ to that time: ‘A curse on me I did not write with joy.’ We can see what he means.

A few of these early poems do rise clear of reportage, either through their formal purity or greater imaginative concentration. ‘Close of Play’ is a fine poem on the sinister forces sensed even in suburbia at dusk, when ‘the golf course becomes a desert,’ and ‘rapists gather under hedges and ditches’ (in 1969, this probably was a metaphor). ‘A River Through the City’ is another memorable poem which begins with an authoritative image,

The river of coloured lights, black stuff
The tired city rests its jewels on,

which can then sustain the larger reference to worldwide corruption:

They know the secrets behind sordid events
In Central Europe, in America and Asia,
And who is doing what for money.

The closing line (‘Iron doors bang shut in the sewers’) goes on reverberating in the mind. In another mode, there was the comic paranoia of ‘A Dream of Judgment’ (‘Posterity, thy name is Samuel Johnson’), where the Doctor delivers infallible negatives on the poet’s work – what else should a Scot expect? – and the fine satire ‘A Poem in Praise of the British’, where the tatters of Empire drift through the dreams of ‘old pederasts on the Brighton promenade’.

Barbarians (1979) marked two significant and related developments. First, Dunn discovered his political voice, proving his ability to speak on behalf of rather than at people; second, he began to explore more complex metrical forms, including the use of rhyme. Poems like ‘Here be Dragons’, ‘Gardeners’ and ‘The Student’ are products of the new entente – the last, with its perception of the links between political and cultural power, reminding one of Tony Harrison. There is something, too, of Harrison’s angle on the familiar in Dunn’s arresting four-line poem, ‘Glasgow Schoolboys, Running Backwards’. The ‘Ballad of the Two Left Hands’, on the unemployed, and a fine elegy for Lowell (compare Heaney’s), confirmed Dunn’s greater range and assurance. I only regret the omission from this selection of ‘The Artist Waiting in a Country House’, a sophisticated meditative poem to be read alongside James Fenton’s ‘A Vacant Possession’. The title poem of St Kilda’s Parliament two years later set the tone for another politically conscious and responsible collection. The poem ‘returns’ to a photograph taken of the men of St Kilda in 1879, fifty years before the island was abandoned.

It is a remote democracy, where men,
In manacles of place, outstare a sea
That rattles back its manacles of salt,
The moody jailer of the wild Atlantic.

By contrast with the early work, this is a poem of celebration and connection: even though what it celebrates is about to be destroyed. The last lines develop a sense of mutual regard, again in pointed contrast to the voyeuristic watching of the early poems:

                   looking at them,
As they, too, must always look at me
Looking through my apparatus at them
Looking ...

The idea of a camera as no mere keyhole but an agent of reciprocity is also found in Derek Mahon’s rich poem ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’: and Mahon turns up as the dedicatee of one of Dunn’s poems here.

But it was with Elegies that Dunn caught the public imagination. These 39 poems written after the death of Lesley Dunn in 1981 (of which, curiously, only 21 are included here) have been compared by Robert Nye to the poems written by Thomas Hardy after the death of his wife, and by Jonathan Raban to In Memoriam. The subject is a precarious one for poetry, and Dunn has not always succeeded in avoiding the pitfalls. Poems like ‘Dining’ and ‘Arrangements’ are dangerously direct; Dunn’s most literal style can hardly sustain such narrative. The pages seem to come printed with tears. What saves these poems (for poetry) is the discreet use of spoken words (as in the fine sonnet ‘France’: ‘I would have liked us to have gone away’ ... ‘Some other day, my love. Some other day’), and the sharply focused detail – like the doctor’s wedding ring in ‘Second Opinion’. But it is the formal grace, now become habitual, and the frequent felicity of phrasing, that promote these poems from symptoms of one person’s grief to symbols of our capacity to construct something enduring and even consoling out of the worst misfortunes. The sonnet form is especially well handled – as in ‘Tursac’, which concludes:

I call that little house our Thébaïde
(The literary French!), and see her smile,
Then hear her in her best sardonic style:
‘Write out of me, not out of what you read.’

The last line recalls the traditional injunction of the Muse to the blocked sonneteer; and although the poet’s reading – as, ironically, here – provides some necessary roughage, the injunction has been most ceremoniously fulfilled. It is appropriate, for his artist wife, that several of these poems should celebrate the light (and odd that one of the finest, ‘Writing with Light’, should not have been included): not only all the variations of sunlight, but also the ‘lovely, erotic flame of the candlelight’, and the ‘leaf-light’ of their favourite first-floor room. But it is also noticeable that Dunn has learned to listen rather than look: to the sea, to birdsong, to voices, to music, to laughter. Yeats urged his horseman to cast a cold eye on both life and death: but the coldness of Dunn’s earlier eye has now been warmed by the life of the other senses. It is through the ear alone that he can accompany this woman who has passed beyond mortality: ‘From blue to blue, and into deep/Suboceanic blue beyond the eye’. And Dunn’s ear as poet has never been more sensitive: individual phrases, lines, the movement of whole poems achieving the rightness that draws a frame of silence round it. It is as if his personal tragedy has provided him with his most profound subject, and as if his earlier prayer for the power to express love, in poetry, has been most cruelly answered.

Reviewing Seamus Heaney and Craig Raine in these columns (1 November 1984), Paul Muldoon insisted that Heaney’s real strength lay in the short lyric (innocently singling out for special praise ‘Widgeon’ – a poem dedicated to and ventriloquised upon Muldoon himself), and he reminded Raine that a sustained metaphor or conceit ‘bears the same relation to a string of metaphors as the Bayeux tapestry to a line of washing’. We should not be surprised, therefore, that this more modest selection from his own four volumes so far – 46 poems, representing less than half his output – gives most emphasis to those short, oblique, ‘conceited’ poems which are his hallmark, though two long poems are also included. On the one hand, these are poems of great simplicity and directness (which does not mean that they are easy to ‘understand’), poems of a fresh, full child’s world, and an inherently metaphorical child’s imagination: where a hedgehog is a god, a snowdrift turns into a woman, and a small boy carried on an adult’s shoulders wonders, magically:

‘Whose were those wide eyes at my groin?’ Poems where we expect to meet a unicorn, and do, poems that ‘like to think’

That a holy well is no more shallow
Nor plummetless than the pools of Shiloh,
The fairy thorn no less true than the Cross.

Poems of primary colours, and the liturgical and heraldic colours, green, gold, purple, yellow, black and red, illuminated by bright shafts under ‘the soiled grey blanket of Irish rain’. (The Bayeux tapestry is not the appropriate visual image for Muldoon: we should think rather of the Book of Kells.) On the other hand, these are streetwise poems. We leave the fairy-tale world behind when we meet the older sister in ‘The Princess and the Pea’ (a poem not included here):

This is no dream
By Dulac out of the Brothers Grimm ...
This is the dream of her older sister,
Who is stretched on the open grave
Of all the men she has known.

The child has to lose its innocence before it can weep for it (‘Bran’), and it is a naughty child indeed who disrespectfully interrogates the primal scene (in ‘October 1950’) with an allusion to a favourite author: ‘Might he have forgotten to wind the clock?’ Even the images of the natural world are culture-laden: a snail ‘moves like a Hovercraft’, a blackbeetle is ‘like a blood-blister with a mind of its own’, a woman’s wound is a ‘vermilion omega’. And Muldoon’s language is alive with ambiguity, allusion, pun, parody and deflation; the poems keep jumping rails with switches of register and idiom.

It is no doubt the blend of these qualities that gives the peculiar quality to his writing – and explains his own suspicion of the grand gesture in poetry, be it breast-beating, truth-telling or name-calling. He has also tended to resist the pretensions forced upon poets by their critics (wittily reproving both ‘the power-crazed Robert Lowell and the craze-powered Clive James’ in this respect), and his own ventures into the public or political sphere have a determinedly domestic dimension. A stop-out sister aggravates the Cuban missile crisis:

‘Who the hell do you think you are,
Running out to dances in next to nothing?
As though we hadn’t enough bother
With the world at war, if not at an end.’

The father’s real anxiety is that

‘this Kennedy’s nearly an Irishman
So he’s not much better than ourselves.’

And Uncle Pat takes the opportunity of a family outing to the ‘brand-new roundabout at Ballygawley’ to tell the story of how he was stopped one night by the B-Specials, who

     made him sing the Sash and curse the Pope of Rome.
They held a pistol so hard against his forehead
there was still the mark of an O when he got home.

One of the finest poems, and typically tantalising, is the title poem from Why Brownlee left, about a man who vanishes into thin air one morning, leaving his team still harnessed to the plough:

Shifting their weight from foot to
Foot, and gazing into the future.

Superbly visualised, this stark two-horse mystery becomes at once as absorbing as the disappearance of the Marie Celeste. Muldoon prefers to ask questions rather than answer them: he often leaves a poem cocked with a question in the last line.

But one cannot engage with Muldoon without taking on the two long poems, ‘Immram’ and ‘The more a man has the more a man wants’. Three hundred and seven hundred lines respectively, they represent a different venture. ‘Immram’ is Muldoon’s miniature Odyssey, in 30 tightly-rhymed ten-line sections: the poet’s long-continued search for his father is blended with myth, ‘a strange voyage of self-discovery by the poet’s legendary ancestor’, Immram Mael Duin. Base camp is a pool-hall in New York:

Not the kind of place you took your wife
Unless she had it in mind to strip
Or you had a mind to put her up for sale.

No dream-vision this: the poet is ‘hit by a hypodermic syringe’ and enters a ‘rich and strange’ world of junkies, pushers and barons (‘Everyone getting right up everyone else’s nose’) where he eventually meets his father, a skeleton with bedsores, finally cornered after shifting ‘from alias to alias’ in this precarious world. But the father can only croak a meaningless forgiveness, and the poet makes his way back ‘like any pilgrim’ to the pool-hall. This is certainly a very different kind of pilgrimage from that undertaken by Heaney in Station Island. ‘The more a man has the more a man wants’ is the complementary epic of the Troubles, in 49 14-line sections (the 50th simply consists of ‘Huh?’). Based upon the Trickster cycle of the Winnebago Indians, it is also a New Metamorphosis in which an Indian with a talismanic pebble of quartz is cross-cut with an IRA terrorist – to end up blown to bits on a garage forecourt, with the pebble still clutched in his hand. Muldoon contrives his own head-on collision of art and politics, as Ovid, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Edward Hopper and Picasso share the stage with the stolen car, the road block, the strip search, the milk-churn booby-trap, and the ‘perruque of tar and feathers’.

Poems like ‘Opinions of the Press’ and the self-interrogating sections from Ukulele Music warn the reviewer of Peter Reading that he risks becoming entangled in his subject like a gladiator in a net. Even his editors at Secker (not to mention the printer) must feel unnerved – which is excellent. This is poetry at its most unpredictable: we wouldn’t be surprised to find a pop-up V-sign over the page. Alan Jenkins has made a good job of selecting from Reading’s ten previous volumes for this Essential Reading, and supplies a helpful Note for new readers. In these packed 230 pages (no wide open spaces in Reading) we will find a character called Donald, who writes poetry ‘which he sends/to literary periodicals/under the name of Peter Reading’; frequent references to one such periodical, the TLS, which carries a Peter Reading poem (genuine or spurious) almost every other week; ‘the psychologist’s mistress and the/psychologist’s wife and the psychologist’, who fall out in ‘Ménage à Trois’; various inhabitants of an asylum, divertingly deranged; violent assaults, muggings, rapes; sudden deaths and cancerous suicides; headlines, adverts, eavesdroppings, and a whole Dictionary of Diseases (Stedman’s); assorted yobs, vandals and villains, guilty of racism, sexism and ageism; Viv the charlady, who lights the Parkray with poems; a garrulous sailor with three centuries’ worth of appalling stories to relate; ‘Belfast, Jerusalem, Brum, Liverpool, Beirut’; perverted Valentines (‘15th February’); the view (variously restated) that ‘Verse is for healthy/arty farties. The dying/and surgeons use prose’; the usual run of husbands, wives, lovers, betraying and betrayed; a miscellany of Reading’s critics and correspondents (possibly genuine); and the ‘Lady’s album of 1826’ which (if it exists) has furnished Reading with many of his ‘found poems’.

We will also encounter the startling originality of Reading’s formal devices. It could be argued that these wonderfully arbitrary structures (such as 5x5x5x5x5 or C: ‘Incongruously I plan/100 100-word units’) are necessary to cope with the disintegrating subject-matter. (Gavin Ewart recently published an amusing parody, ‘The Peter Reading Poem’, which consists of a few expletives tacked together with metrical blanks.) It is as if a brain surgeon were to turn vivisectionist and perform a delicate operation on a patient – such as himself – still writhing on the table. One can only urge anyone who has not yet discovered Reading to begin here: satisfaction – and stupefaction – guaranteed.

Reading’s new volume, Stet, presents all his virtues in a concentrated form. It is a remarkable work, an updated downmarket ‘Waste Land’ which assails us with the sights and sounds of a world gone terribly wrong:

The tramp’s scalp’s indigo pus-oozing boil;
sulphur dioxide piss-hued cumulus;
a mac daubed with puked Chinese take-away –
drooled noodly detail of a Jackson Pollock;
furred upside-down tench in a mauve canal ...
I sing the Grotty [no alternative].

The self-deprecating ‘Poet Pete’s’ unavailing protest is allowed to stand; the printing metaphor is justified with an appalling pun:

[Re-draft the sick obsessional chuntering,
strike out the old gratuitous cruelties ...
(re-draft be buggered, leave as printed,
Hail!, uncorrectable Age of Floored Proofs).]

There are echoes here of the great Augustan satires, rank with printers’ ink: the Gutenberg Dunciad, and the author-ejecting ‘Tale of a Tub’. The volume’s 40 leaves are unpaginated: the very structure of The Book is under attack. What we have is 79 (unnumbered) poems, fragments and one-liners, linked together in a pared-down plot of novelistic scope and complexity. I dare say it’s the first book of poems that could be filmed. The outer plot is contemporary history, from the Coronation to the present reign of ‘Great Britain’s/Satrapess gloatingly self-applauding’. The hinge is autobiography, anchored in the unswinging and unsung Fifties of Reading’s childhood:

’52: Mummy paused, wiped a floured hand and tuned in the wireless –
sad Elgar, crackling, then death of our King George the Sixth.

The Coronation, double-featured with ‘The Conquest of Everest’, is purveyed to the provinces via a ‘gaudily faded Regal’. A small boy at the Junior school, overseen by the caring Miss Clio (‘genuine name, “Miss Clio” is, by the way’), he is first confused by the war in ‘Career’, then made to ‘feel comfy inside’ by a ‘Narmistice’, only to be alarmed again by things going wrong Out There.

’56: going home from the Juniors,
I read the headlines Suez and Crisis Point
crikey! I thought, there must be something
terribly wrong with the nation’s toilets ...

Tony Harrison is once again brought to mind by Reading’s world of classrooms, comics, cinemas and working-class interiors: these two poets of the classical demotic have a lot in common. There is a remarkable ‘secular ecstasy’ recorded in the Headmaster’s study, alerting us to Reading’s lyrical voice – a voice deriving from Hopkins, Frost and Edward Thomas. This voice is exercised in the fine, fraught elegy for a friend, killed in a car accident, with whom he shared an early passion for birdwatching. Orwell maintained that fishing was the opposite of war; Peter Reading seems to offer birdwatching as the antithesis of atrocity.

This ecstatic voice is interrupted here by the caustic, cryptic countermining of the other, lurking in square brackets, who regards lyrical poetry as ‘Hippocrene hogwash’ and elegy as ‘arrogant therapy/piffle, claptrap’:

[Who do you think you are whining to? No
reader { wants
 shares your bereavement
and it’s pathetic and mad to address yourself to the dead.]

The anti-poet has most of the say. He provides typical Reading horror stories: the torture of a shopkeeper and his wife by an ‘acned trio’ – ‘Cro Magnon, simian, Neanderthal/(but the same species as Christ, Einstein, Bach)’; the 23-stone GBH specialist whose battered wife gets her own back with a casserole dish (‘Some ententes rely/much on a reciprocity of malice’); the fate of Esther Albouy, lover of a German soldier, imprisoned by her shamed family for forty years until delivered to a psychiatric hospital. The ironic voice also supplies the centrepiece, a British Rail poem that will not, I imagine, be selected by Judith Chernaik for the London Underground:

The buffet carriage lurches side to side
causing a democratic crocodile
(Financial Timeses, Suns, a TES
spinsterly, oil-rig drunk, a see-through blouse,
two Sikhs, a briefcased First Class parvenu)
to jig like salts on storm-tossed quarterdecks.

This is the last movement of the Movement, as is suggested by the accelerated Larkinesque lines:

A cooling tower, scrap cars bashed into cubes,
a preternaturally mauve canal.

But it is the dialogic principle that provides the true Reading taste: where the ‘especial, pseudo-rural, scene’ (from Hopkins) contends with the ‘holed Nuform, empty Long Life, laid-flat oats’ (from Eliot); where the early migrants and melodious warblers are drowned out by the shattering Harriers and hedge-hopping Tornadoes. These discordant voices are jostled by a gang of others to create a true Bakhtinian polyphony. There is a gloriously illiterate pub politician who fears that ‘this bleeding/nucular warflair’ will soon have us all ‘dead as a yo-yo mate’, and meanwhile leave ‘Prodestants, Catherlic, Jews, Isleramics’ to ‘blow bloody buggery out of each other’; a demented scientist of Swiftian extraction interested only in the laws of ‘reasonless causal physics’ at the extreme fringes of the universe; a grief-crazed widow who writes to the ‘Miss Prudence’ of a provincial newspaper, and ‘Miss Prudence’ himself, a disreputable literary editor who supplements his income by submitting vapid verses under different aliases to win the £10-per-week poetry prize. There is also the resource of the lady’s album of 1826, which provides two one-liners, ‘unexplained’ but expressive: the pentameter ‘This waiting bravely to be badly hurt’, and the alexandrine, ‘Something ridiculous and sad will happen soon.’ The note of fearful prognostication makes these natural epigraphs to the volume.