Monday 18 November 2019

Books: Savage and playful, Durcan still surprises

The Days of Surprise, Paul Durcan, Harvill Secker, €14.99

Feted: Weather girl Jean Byrne in figure hugging dress
Feted: Weather girl Jean Byrne in figure hugging dress
The cover of Days of Surprise

Niall MacMonagle

A primary school pupil's question, "How many poems have you written?", surprised Paul Durcan. His answer, "Two thousand", surprised Durcan himself even more. But then no other Irish poet in the past fifty years has been so steeped in the goings-on of this country, so concerned with its concerns, so harsh in his condemnation of injustice, inequality, hypocrisy, and so wild and memorable in highlighting Ireland's oddities.

Durcan's prodigious output also contains beguiling love poems, surreal liberating narratives, quirky memorable utterances and though his poetry is sometimes prompted by headlines - the Northern Troubles, the Divorce Referendum, the death of six nuns in a fire, the election of Mary Robinson - it is always courageously personal and passionately spiritual.

This new book, The Days of Surprise, as with much of Durcan, is deceptive. The sixty-seven poems read fluently, easily, almost conversationally. But listen. That distinctive Paul Durcan music is in his superb command of rhythmic pattern and repetition. The immediate and engaging tone always strikes home.

These new poems, carefully sequenced and orchestrated, move from Durcan as a boy of three ["3 years of age in the full of my days"] to that same boy, now in his late sixties in a GP's waiting room. In 57, Dartmouth Square, a poignant and psychologically convincing elegy for the past, he says "I was my home". But that first poem also announces the speaker's troubled, anxious future life as "a happy neurotic".

From here the book opens up and ripples outwards to include an eclectic array of characters: foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, Pope Francis, TV's weather women, an arrogant consultant, an unmarried mother, Ringsend neighbours, Maud Gonne's grandson, a woman from Zonguldak, a smug Benedictine "cowled/ In all the fatty finery of snobbery" earning Durcan's savage indignation. There's a celebration of Brian Friel, a lament for Seamus Heaney and Michael D Higgins reading poetry to Sabina: 'Reading poetry to one another to stay sane./ Isn't it the hardest thing of all to stay sane?'

Through Paul Durcan's painterly eye a parcel is opened "as delicately as a surgeon executing a tracheotomy"; an umbrella becomes "a carousel of Arousal"; anything to do with health is "a Stations of the Cross"; "an aged massive chestnut tree" becomes "a maternity hospital seething with childbirth"; Papa Francesco "in his white shop coat" makes possible "the days of surprise".

Another Durcan hallmark is the imaginative leap which he does so effectively in The Death of Marie Colvin when he shifts, movingly, from a tiny public park in New York in 1959 to a cocktail bar in Beirut in 2012.

Aged seventy, for Durcan sickness, death and funerals, in poetry as in life, now feature more. In The Twenty-four-Hour Piano Recital, "bow-tied Death sitting upright at his black piano" plays "all day", "all night".

But the exuberance is also there. Durcan is still crazy about women. Two women on a weekend in Barcelona have a "Howl-arious!" time. A girl on a bicycle becomes "the not-yet pregnant mother of God". A woman nursing her baby on a bus in El Salvador tenderly takes a priest's hand and places it on her breast. His 'Azores High' weather women poem celebrates Siobhán Ryan with her "deep-sea, coming-up-for-air disclosures" and Jean Byrne in her "body-hugging dress", a poem set to become a party-piece.

Irish Bankers Shoot Dead Fifty-seven Homeless Children and The W.B. Yeats Shopping Centre are discombobulatingly Durcanesque, one savage, the other playful. Breaking News, an elegy for Seamus Heaney, a tender work of telling detail, contains the most beautiful moment in this entire collection. Here, combining biblical phrasing and echoes from one of Heaney's own favourite sentences, the opening of Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, Durcan has Heaney stepping into heaven: "And now I put the key for the first time/ Into the door of my father's house".

The name poet is never claimed. It is bestowed. Seamus Heaney always addressed Paul Durcan as 'Poet Durcan'. That he is. In The Days of Surprise the reader is continually, refreshingly, entertainingly, disturbingly surprised and, more importantly, nourished.

Richard Dorment's Making us see things DIFFERENTLY, quoted here by Maestro Durcan, could serve as a subtitle to this collection. His way of looking at the world is entirely his own. That humorous and deadly serious way of his often unsettles and unnerves his reader. In risk-taker Paul Durcan there is never a comfort zone.

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