Noel Duffy’s choice of title for his debut collection is a good early omen. It neatly and precisely draws together the book’s deepest concerns. In the Library of Lost Objects is primarily concerned with preservation and restoration: the poems that play with this theme are uniformly more satisfying than the ones that don’t. To be more specific, when Duffy employs his knowledge and intimate familiarity with the natural and geological world, the poems flow with quiet assurance.
This refreshing curiosity about the inner workings of the stellar bodies, magnetic fields, beehives and fossils is the fuel for his poems; richness, even in such mundane things, comes from being in a world in which life is precious and survival always possible. A few key poems lend the book a sense of cohesion and, with ideas so thoroughly connected, even a few lesser pieces gain in vitality.
‘The Summer I Mapped the World’, with its one word of Irish, éaligh: escape, is a poem of childhood in which (unlike many of his contemporaries) Duffy’s experience is viewed without a nostalgic filter. Once he éalighs the classroom, his solo project is to make a map of his town using only a notebook and his counted strides as a meter. The lines “At last the roads locked into place, joined up/ as they should across the barren spaces” are a fully-achieved expression of the feeling when a poem clicks in the reader’s mind, one that still makes sense within the boundaries of the poem’s conceit.
When the cogs mesh, Duffy crafts some brilliant set-pieces. ‘The Beekeeper to his Assistant’ is another poem that gets the dynamic between tenor and vehicle spot-on, fluctuating seamlessly between experience and instinct, scientific fact and anecdote, the art of beekeeping and the tradition of poetry:
You must understand from the beginning
that the hive is a mind and one
you will not comprehend.
And then (with the Queen Bee as subject):
Unknowingly she gives birth to her own successor
incubated in the brood and hidden from her.
This is a fantastic poem, and one I hope gets its fair share of exposure.
‘The Beekeeper to his Assistant’ also mentions Albert Einstein, who as a less-than-stellar pupil himself is something of a patron spirit. The poem he gets to himself, ‘Einstein’s Compass’, is an anthem to absent-mindedness, as the boy Albert is derided by an unnamed voice for his unbroken attention to his father’s compass and its steady needle:
when will the boy learn,
that it will never do otherwise,
that he breaks his mother’s heart
with his silent vigils?
Einstein once said “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” It is the book’s similarly modest, unwritten epigram.
‘Baltic Amber’ does the kind of stitch-work that most books only dream of having. So many threads find a common ground here it’s almost worth quoting in full, but to summarise: an ant caught in amber “in the afternoon heat of the Paleolithic” (wow), is an “emblem and lifeline/ of all that perishes, all that survives.” These lines shed sudden light on five or six other poems and position the preserved ant as the ideal symbol of poetry’s work of consecration, restoration and survival.
The closing poem, ‘Swallows’, draws a circle around a series of poems about Duffy’s late father; the swallows that appear “the day after I wrote your poem” are heavy with emotional and metaphorical freight. It’s not quite possible to tell what has been imagined and what has fallen serendipitously into place, but ‘Swallows’ is convincing enough for that not to matter. Duffy’s work is rooted in a deep study of his medium and, although not without occasional shortcomings, the poems in In the Library of Lost Objects work in concert in a way very few books achieve.
Dave Coates grew up in Belfast and lives in Edinburgh. He writes about poetry on his blog, http://davepoems.wordpress.com. His new year’s resolution is to write on it more often.
In the Library of Lost Objects is published by Ward Wood, 2011, £7.99.
for blog review 4, see Miriam Gamble on Ailbhe Darcy’s ‘Imaginary Menagerie’
for blog review 3, see Steven Waling on Rupert Loydell’s ‘Wildlife’.
for blog review 2, see Cath Nichols on Gregory Woods’s ‘An Ordinary Dog’.
for blog review 1, see Mark Burnhope on Katy Evans-Bush’s ‘Egg Printing Explained’.