Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

A Dream Of String Vests: Ian Duhig – New And Selected Poems

Ian Duhig
Ian Duhig
If it was possible to extrapolate and catalogue every reference, every literary or historical allusion, every formal device from this glittering collection of old and new poems, you’d be obliged, at the very least, to doff your cap to a stupendous intellect. Not that forelock-tugging is Ian Duhig’s bag: the cleaving towards equity and redress that animates his poetic mandate, no less than that of Tony Harrison, is an instinctive corrective to the double-handed absurdity of obeisance. Of the sort we find in the characteristically sardonic ‘The Senator’s Assessment’, whose baseline is the corrupting tendency of power. Written from the point of view of a member of the Roman ruling class, the burgeoning lunacy of the Emperor is reined in no less efficiently, and with no less metaphorical acuity, than the poet’s pinioning of hubris throughout this wonderful book:

‘I wouldn’t exactly say that we deserved him,
but you can’t have children and remain a virgin.
We will be less ambitious with our next candidate’.

Harrison’s sense of loyalty to the class that succoured him is less defined in Duhig, whose affiliation is empathic, widely spread and harvested in the general grievance. We find, in this astonishingly eclectic volume, songs to his Irish ancestry nestled amongst poems about his mentor, Laurence Sterne, and celebrations of the Leeds labouring classes cheek-by-jowl with elegies for indentured slaves of a different ‘tigerish’ stripe. And really, there is little disconnect between any theme save for the controls of detail and context, for the prevailing tone is profoundly moving, when it is not being satirical, skittish or surreal in the same breath.

To be irksome, as E. P. Thompson found, is to expose by irritation, to scratch at microscopic itches for the overall benefit of the body politic. Duhig, like Thompson, is vexatious in behalf of those whose voices have been drowned in the grand canal of subjection, like the hapless ‘Chocolate Soldier’ conned into service for the inducement of ready cash and liquor, and repenting of his decision at leisure:

‘so all you young squaddies,
God save you from hurt;
ask my advice
and I’ll tell you: desert.’

This poet is commendably comfortable with derivation: inhabitation of the mindset of the squaddie in this fine anapaestic ballad owes more to Kipling than to turgid introspection, and it works the better for it. As, in the simple brevity of six unbearably affecting quatrains, does the story of a Great War deserter, one Herbert Burden, whose execution by firing squad on 21st July 1915 is played out in the grief of his mother; her tendering of poppies to cover her son’s bloodstains amounts to something greater than the hackneyed casuistry of symbolism:

‘She bought three poppies
for she said their stems
were green as that squad
of trembling men.’ (‘The Stake’)

The work of recognition often falls on a single word or phrase in Duhig’s visualisation of unfolding events; that the firing squad visibly tremble imputes an innocence as conspicuous as that of the condemned man, and we are obliged, in our new knowledge, to look again at the imploring face of the victim in Goya’s Third of May 1808 for a lacerating reminder of authenticity. Above all, there is abundant truth in the poetry, of the sort that cross-stitches the best of artistic endeavour to invest disparate forms with a satisfying unitary value: Goya’s victims and the poet’s firing squad elicit exquisite pathos in the look, the bewilderment and the moment.

Duhig’s resolute lack of self-absorption is refreshing in a landscape of overwhelmingly in-turned mirrors; he disappears (qua clear, conspicuous identity) into a Birnam Wood of cultural and historical negotiation where focus is pragmatic, but always driven by an instinctive humility and sense of the underdog. His career choices – I mean career outside of poetry – underwrite an attitude of selflessness; his abandonment to the service of others – here and elsewhere, now and in the past – is expressed best in the measured rubric of verse. The poems we see are the true gauge of an unusually gifted, if not unique, intelligence, but the figure behind the voice is chary of wearing his string vest on the outside because appearance is entirely secondary to the dispensing of cultural enlightenment or the addressing of material hardship.

Another great arbiter of cultural wisdom, Rab C. Nesbitt, makes an appearance by association in a poem dedicated to the recently departed Brendan Kennelly, ‘A Dream of Wearing String Vests Forever’, in which ‘The Breakfasting Duhig’, a portrait of orotund self-laceration, opens on to a metaphor for the cosmos, whose endlessness is as long as the proverbial piece of string, and as curiously comforting. Getting the hang of its multifarious uses, we feel the ‘integrity and warmth’ of the vest’s simple legacy. Duhig is skilled at unpicking the threads of the quotidian minutiae as a studied means of broadening what he, in this poem, calls an ‘ontological conundrum’. And if one knock-on effect of string vests and their propensity for ‘dreamcatching’ is surreal humour, we remain grateful that we are being liberally entertained. In ‘Images of Spit’, from The Mersey Goldfish, Duhig does for the practiced art of gobbing what Palladas did for semen, which is to invest metaphorical energy in the act of discharge:

'The solid gold yolk of a fresh egg
stands proud as sunrise on its plate,
so should a hawked emerald Gilbert
clumped like shamrock on your victim’s mug’.

The demands of taste are subsumed in the viscosity of the ‘flob’, if not rendered redundant by Duhig’s easy insinuation of assonantal wit into an unprepossessing tableau.

Lammas Hireling, from which the vest poem is taken, is rich in the subtle, satirical comedy of the ordinary. Duhig’s appliqué in ‘Blood’ takes a Skin as its start point, in a poem of mock-heroic aggrandisement which builds solemnly, in the manner of Pope, before applying an artfully-tooled size nine to self-delusion and over-assiduous conformity. ‘Cherry Reds’ would be the footware of choice for the preening specimen whose attention to sartorial detail is second only to his suggestion of violence, and it is in precision of observation that Duhig creates a figure of bullet-headed risibility. The boy here might be a ridiculous parody of Belinda at her toilette such is his carefully curated appearance, until we are returned to another meaning of ‘blood’ as the would-be Yakuza cowers at the thought of inoculation:

‘in front of a whole queue of third years, you blacked out
just at the glimpse of the lance of her vaccination needle.’

The final corrective is characteristic of an urge for restitution in Duhig’s work, though, again like Pope, he achieves it without inflicting disproportionate pain. No need, on the other hand, for redress in the concise and affectionate ‘goths’, taken from Pandorama, whose subjects revel in dark fantasies of the ‘antilife and uncolour’, and who haunt Whitby on annual pilgrimage, ‘wincing in the sunlight’.

Double meaning is an abundant key to interpretation across Duhig’s oeuvre, not least in the showing of recent poems here, and especially in the suggestive power of single words or phrases. Like ‘Dildurn Burial’, whose dedication – i.m. - is unattributed because the central compartment of a ‘pleasuring device’ which might contain the crematory ash ‘of a loved one, favourite pet or even personal enemy’, opens, by linguistic association, on to an oblique landscape of meaning, of another kind of instrument - the Irish bodhrán - and the tolling of a ‘soft drum pulse’ for funeral exequy, perhaps for the late Ciaran Carson whose memory the poem recalls. Duhig’s work underwrites that sense of connection which otherwise unites us. The wonderful opening poem – ‘From the Irish’ – a concise celebration of the durability of love, for person and for the diversity of language and culture, takes as its subject Patrick Dinneen’s lexicographical masterpiece, Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla, which, explicitly or implicitly, reappears throughout the poet’s oeuvre. Most affectingly in another, recent poem of connections – ‘Rue’: here, a street in Burgundy re-dedicated in the name of Jo Cox contrasts with the absence of a similar commemoration in her homeland, on the absurd grounds that it might provoke controversy. Prompting his narrator to speculate on the nature of ‘rue’, Shakespeare’s ‘herb of grace’, Duhig enacts his own service to the MP’s memory by reminding his audience that Gulliver applied the same balm to his nose to mitigate the distasteful ‘smell of his countrymen’. The whiff of division is more pungent than Jo Cox knew.

Duhig’s hugely skilled, and readable, enquiries into untrodden historical byways swell with authenticity of form and context. Inhabiting the psycho-geographical terrain of subjects as diverse as the seventeenth century burning of witches, the war on the Eastern Front, the Plague years, and the Martini-Henry/Missionary interface of British colonial power, the poet paints the questionable cultural purlieus of the present in the defacements of the past. Retrospective probity demands no less, and it is well that the anger that drives the eviscerating pen is mediated by a measure of control, overlaying Duhig’s excursions with an integrity as focused as that of Jeffrey Wainwright. Countenanced in the tones of oppression, Duhig’s feeling for history is often revealed in clottings of local detail which yield a pastiche of plenty in the thinnest of existences; the effect is profoundly ironic – a cornucopia of victuals in ‘From the Plague Journal’ amounts, instead, to a trim reckoning, a failure of accumulation to entice or sustain, at least beyond the panaceas of quack medicine and the entrails of subsistence - the ‘reed-root, pig-weed, rugwort, bar-weed’. A world of ration and general want is interpreted, here, as though the poet were present at a moment of truth in a China of the imagination. The witness’ terse ineloquence – ‘That is all I remember about our food’ – is a condition of withering entropy, and also a kind of accommodation.

Suffering and labour are the gears upon which these fascinating reconstructions of social history grind into life, like the trapdoor of an end-of-the-pier automaton. Or the inexorable burrowing of Teredo navalis in a katabatic descent through a ship’s hull and into a metaphysical Underworld of drudgery and collective memory. Seeking an ancestral connection in the London mud, and in the navvies who peopled and constructed a city’s geography, Duhig’s narrator finds, amongst the glittering detritus of a working class Wasteland , the shadow of Every(wo)man:

‘for Trimmer Gorman, Cahillane
and all the nameless exiles,
Sligo, Semite, Vietnamese.
My brother’s name is Babylon’. (‘Babylon’).

So, too, in the controlled, hugely-skilled, linguistic exercises of The Blind Roadmaker, whose interiorisation of a sense of anger re-emerges in surreal temporal slippages, lest we should forget that injustice is set on a continuum, that we bang our heads against it daily. In this landscape ‘dead hand-loom weavers spin and reel’ in history’s silence whilst a soldier suicide, bolloxed on ‘Buckfast and tequila cocktail’, carries the thread into the present (‘The Year’s Mind, Ripon’). And an act of becoming is rehearsed in the déjà-vu of ‘Ashtrayville’, where a strange cityscape, rendered sterile and birdless, is an echoing vault of collective memory. Duhig’s final quatrain incarcerates time and indentured service in a moment of moribund recognition:

‘The watch is inscribed in copperplate
with your name, your title, your dates,
that it’s for your long service to this city.
You weep with pride. Then you just weep.’

The plagues and the fevers which swallow both literal and metaphorical purpose towards the end of this visionary collection are the ‘contagion’ which impels the creative imagination. In our own time of contagion, it is instructive to be reminded of the figurative possibilities of plague, of the easy conflation of plague and scapegoat, of word and word. For Ian Duhig, plague, and its pejorative human connotation, precipitate an instinctive flight toward a shared sense of identity, but most an urge to protect the persecuted or the weak, whether they consist in the Irish roadmakers of Leeds, Haitian slaves, or the forgotten figure of David Oluwale, the émigré Nigerian drowned in the River Aire in 1969 by two policeman who’d not learned that ‘hospitality’s a sacred duty’ (‘Flooding Back’).

Duhig’s poems are songs that express a keening no less evocative, and no less infused with love, than the Irish Sean-nós tradition on which he often reflects. And if they are made of the bricks and mortar of lived experience it is because they are the aggregate of a lament whose meaning is immanent, and whose purpose is current:

‘This is my house of bricks now,
every line a health hazard aloud;
my contrary blood fills each cell,
is its ink and my heart its ill well.’ (‘Irish Fever’)

Ian Duhig: New and Selected Poems is published by Picador