I’d only read one poem by Tom Duddy but its simple grace stayed with me. There was a mysteriousness and sweetness to it, a gut feeling that this was a real poem by a real poet (much as I felt when first reading John Glenday’s Grain). It was ‘The Touch’, and, like many of the poems in this posthumous collection, dealt with a rural Irish childhood memory of going running to fetch the doctor and being met on the doorstep by his wife “…whose briskly gentle hands/once fixed my collar as I stood in the rain”. I wanted to discover if Duddy’s other poems had that magic and having now read The Years I can say that they do.
The circumstances of this collection – Tom Duddy’s unexpected illness, failed treatment and death aged 62 – would make reading some of the poems almost unbearable if not for the poet’s ability to marvel at the world, to encompass both anguish at approaching death and a heightened tenderness for life. The thought of autumn induces both: “A frisson runs me through, half-/grief, half thrill.” (Urban Calendar p.43) In circumstances such as these, poetry itself in thought and act assumes deeper significance, as the dust-jacket says: “Faced with mortality, the ‘exactitude’ of poetic writing provided discipline, illumination and hope”. In this “exactitude” lie layers of a quiet, dry humour, an acutely self-aware nostalgic inclination and a formidable intelligence. Duddy’s publisher Nell Nelson wrote in a HappenStance blog shortly after his death in 2012 that Duddy “writes as though…each moment contains the secret of life. We should all write like this – if only we could”.
Time and memory are slippery, subtly charged with emotional force: childhood and middle-age are fluidly interlinked. In ‘Time Of Our Lives’ Duddy muses on his changed house, quiet now their children no longer fill it and he and his wife are “resigning [themselves] to peace”. Another, ‘The Stones’, is a meditation on how we forget the details and minutiae of everyday life yet that is where meaning, in the end, lies. I love how lightly yet surely the poet treads in these fragile places, hidden and secret as the houses and dens he often evokes, yet as deeply familiar and resonant as myth. The opening and closing poems, ‘The Appointment’ and ‘The Last Guest’, frame this collection with great control. Both are about death and dying though neither is referenced overtly. The mysterious quality of the first poem, its “stooping figure” in the room dark with heavy curtains who searches in a “secret drawer” and who will not wake the protagonist “till it’s time” is both sinister and loving. The final poem, in which the unspecified “she” makes “the effort, effort/of such magnitude that only I/am able to know it” to stay “listening”, “never tiring/ persona in place” until “the/last/guest/has//left”, is, in my reading, a love poem and a blessing for those whom the dead must leave behind, hugely moving and impressive.
‘Memory’ poems, capturing a moment or drawn-out narrative, celebrate the rich multiplicity of an ‘ordinary’ life: a child hiding in his den, a dreaded wedding reception, a visiting uncle, a parcel from America with unwearable hand-me-downs, a political meeting, a childhood game – all are lightly and skilfully handled, vividly described. And yet beneath lie profound musings on mortality, love, loss, time, memory: ‘Liber Mundi’ ends
“…Presented//with the merely actual, we look off/to one side of it, reading for omens/of a counter-world that is unmarked, unflagged, still remotely our own.”
His death has put paid to the great promise of a too-small output – a pamphlet from HappenStance, The Small Hours, in 2006, a first full collection by Irish press Arlen House, The Hiding Place, in 2011 and this final collection, The Years, again by Nell Nelson’s HappenStance. It is to HappenStance’s great credit that they first encouraged his gift and have now given us this fine collection of last work to keep his light shining.
Here is the final stanza from ‘Eagles and Victors’, a poem ostensibly about nostalgia for old comics and the particular intensity of a child’s imaginative reading:
The only thing that can compare now
is a new book of poems in which
someone from the far side of an old
or new world, making do with words,
puts you in the picture by the dint
of exactitude, leaving small hints
of the unknown – a bobolink here,
a gossamer tree there, by Sung Mountains.
There is so much in The Years: “making do with words” while weaving a marvellous spell with them. The extract above could be describing my first opening of Tom Duddy’s book and the connection I felt instantly with what I found inside.
The Years by Tom Duddy is published by HappenStance Press, £12 hardback.
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)