Thursday 17 January 2019

Review: Poetry: Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have My Being by Paul Durcan

Harvill Secker, £12
Available withfree P&P onwww.kennys.ie or bycalling 091 709350

Paul Durcan comes second only to Seamus Heaney as our most famous living poet. Taoiseach Enda Kenny is an admirer, as was former Taoiseach Charles Haughey; President Michael D Higgins could be said to be a disciple.

And yet, though Durcan's appeal covers the blue, green and red of the political spectrum, it isn't easy to say what his own colour is -- certainly not the grey of the Establishment.

Not infrequently he refers to himself as "Paul". But that personality is a construction, a work of art, like this superbly composed, uneasy, desperately witty and often startling book.

It paints a portrait of the artist as an ageing man, lonely, on the shelf, estranged from his family. He dithers on the fringes of self-control, teeters, totters, falls over and is helped to his feet by "a party of Chinese tourists".

The ditherer has, albeit comically, a destiny, a speaking part in our ancient debate about what kind of animal the Irish man is, including "that gang of tight-bottomed, piotious, creeping Jesuses in Allied Irish Banks".

In a recent interview with Olivia O'Leary on RTÉ, Seamus Heaney said that in five years lecturing as professor of poetry in Oxford he never once told a joke -- to do so would have made him a Paddy.

Although Durcan is all comic confession, it would be a mistake to see the Paddy in the Paul. He too has authority, even if it is different to the territory so watchfully guarded by the Nobel laureate.

Durcan learned his stance from Patrick Kavanagh. But when that Paddy announced "Kavanagh tells all", he didn't own up, as Durcan does, to suicidal tendencies. He stands on the edge of a cliff and thinks: "How idiotic it would be to jump. /How idiotic it is not to jump."

But while this is a downward-looking book, it also jumps for joy. As he says, "Although I have 60 per cent depression, I do not despair".

The joy comes from meeting strangers and, more rarely, from the people close to him -- "a female relation" describes him as "an anal-retentive nutter". The mania for, and fear of, order often expresses itself in admiration of fearless disorder, of beggars, of a homeless man reading The Da Vinci Code, of all kinds of outcasts.

Durcan's heroes are individuals who go their own way no matter what. Prominent amongst them are John Moriarty, the highly strung sage of Kerry; the illustrious actor David Kelly -- the marvellous elegy here was written before he died; and the uniquely gifted German painter Veronica Bolay, a long-time resident of Mayo, who inspires five poems.

Durcan adores spirit wherever he finds it: he sees the voluptuously intelligent chick-lit novelist Amanda Brunker signing books in Hodges Figgis and -- as what mousy male wouldn't? -- falls for her big-time.

But he doesn't speak to her. Fate has reduced him to a role in a silent movie. In his "days of slapstick loneliness" women are the stars. Some, like Nuala O'Faolain -- "A teardrop/ On the shores of eternity" -- are as lonely as himself. Some are idealised: he pours praise on nurses for "Emptying buckets of tenderness" over his head. But not all nurses are nurturing: on his list of human horrors are "cowpat-faced ward sisters".

A woman he is attracted to rejects him, he speculates, because she sees "some ancient venom ... / Some murderous instinct in him". A more fearsome female, Breda, from Limerick, a PhD student of business studies in Paris, orders him to go home, "To your pigsty of self-pity ... with your limp tail/ Between your legs". To this Durcan replies meekly, "I will, Breda, I will."

When it comes to bossy women, this silent movie star is not so much Buster Keaton as beaten custard.

Defeat is deepening Durcan's already deep talent. The art is all in the voice. The conversational tone seems simple, but it's intricately made. And increasingly abstract -- poems that were once upon a time like news bulletins, reports from the front, are now less frantic, more distanced.

The effect is sometimes achieved by using the voices of old women. The 80-year-old who slates "the creeping Jesuses" of AIB suddenly breaks off to say that a young friend, Mary Brierly is "at death's door./ Cancer. Inoperable. Now that's a thing ... / So nice meeting you, so nice. Bye-ee!"

The greatest of his many gifts is this inspired suddenness, which often flies up off the ends of poems. Earlier I said it was not easy to say what colour Durcan is. At his best, which he often surpasses in this book, he produces what blue, green and red make when mixed: a pure white light, the noble glow of true praise. In contemporary literature, and not just Irish poetry, Durcan is flying high. Noble may yet become Nobel.

Brian Lynch's first book, Endsville, was shared with Paul Durcan and published in 1967.

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