Monday 21 October 2019

Looking to make sense of the maddening crowd

Peter Murphy on the life and work of poet Christopher Daybell

SOME time ago, the present writer was loitering without intent on a small street in Blackrock when my eye snagged on that of a garda.

"Are you all right?" he asked in a manner that suggested he wasn't too concerned about my welfare. I told him I was, but volunteered no further information, mainly because I think a person has the right to stand on the street doing nothing without being called on it by the law.

Loitering is an endangered occupation. John B Keane once said that all poets are corner boys. If that's true, and all benevolent gadabouts are hustled off the streets, the only poetry left will come from the parlour and the dogs' dinners.

There'll be no more boulevardiers, no more Arthur Rimbauds, no more Bob Dylans. And no more Christopher Daybells.

For the first part of his 61 years, Christopher Daybell proved himself a multilingual lover of literature, a sportsman and a teacher, but he quit academia for the vocation of selling his poetry on the street.

In the introduction to Daybell's The Man With The Crowded Eye Selected Poems, Ulick O'Connor places him alongside Baudelaire, still as a stone in the current of the crowd, looking to hook a stranger's eye on his.

Watching and listening are the better part of writing. Throughout this collection, we get the sense of a man constantly on the lookout for the image that will crystallise the day and make sense of the maddening crowd. In The Winterman he browbeats around a Beat-like sense of inner apocalypse and laments the shrivelling of wonder:

Within the bars and cafes of the town/ You see mascara'd eyes in a grimace/ Their retinas empty of surprise.

Or the paranoia of the solitary observer:

Water splashing from the bus/ The elements/ Are all against me (Winter).

Yet, like all poets worth their salt, Daybell doesn't baulk at turning the eyeball around and staring a hole in his own skull:

For I have learned the double tongue/ In places where I've walked/ And now that I am fifty-one/ My tongue has come out forked.

But despite the fervent grasp on his calling, the poet sometimes considers his craft subservient to sport. In the case of All Dust And Ashes, published in this newspaper in January 1999, we're talking cricket:

As a batsman who could play/ All the shots at the age of fifteen/ With a future in my greatest talent/ I gave it up for other passions/ Women and poetry and history/ And how unnecessary they seem/ Beside the timed drive/ The red ball sweeping through the outfield.

"The life or the work?" Yeats once asked. For Daybell, they were one and the same.

The man with the Crowded Eye Selected Poems by Christopher Daybell, Euro6.35. Proceeds to Afghanistan and East Timor. For stockists, ring Pat O'Malley, 054 36290.

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