Hello friends and visitors. I'm going to write about someone else's poetry book again. Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I'll begin...
You might have noticed that I only write about books of other people's poetry occasionally – mainly because I'm not a poetry critic and the whole subject of poetry lit crit is not one of my favourites really. I quite enjoy writing about novels, films, music, comedy, even visual art sometimes these days...but when it comes to poetry I definitely prefer writing it to writing about it. I think it's partly that I tend to have fairly strong (and odd) feelings about how I want to write poetry (the whats and hows and whys) and I'm never sure how to fit that in with talking about someone else's work. I can tell you if I like something (and I think there's a chance you might like it too) but beyond that...poetry criticism can get so dry and academic (and totally not my kind of thing). It can make me quite uncomfortable...physically and mentally...look, here I am positively shifting about in my seat as I type!
I had a flick through my archives and whilst I do mention other poets' work fairly regularly all I have done on this blog even remotely review-wise has been something about an anthology (here) as well as two posts about chapbooks by JoAnne McKay (here) and Anna Dickie (here). Today however I have an urge to write about another poet again. So come on down Irishman Tom Duddy, you are the lucky subject. You are also the author of a book of poems called 'The Small Hours' that looks like this:
So let's get started...how did I come across the work of Tom Duddy? Oh yes...
Now and again I take a look at the HappenStance blog kept by publisher and poet Helena Nelson. Many of you will know (but some of you won't) that HappenStance publishes poetry chapbooks (pamphlets) and other related thin and papery items and that the whole enterprise is based in Fife in Scotland. I own quite a few of their publications already (all bought with real money!) and probably my favourite HappenStance product so far is Helena Nelson's own 'Unsuitable Poems' (with its fine mix of style and humour and the slightly unexpected). Hell, I even included Nelson in my list of '25 writers that have influenced me' (back here – she's number 24).
I am interested in Nelson's opinion (even if I often disagree with it...and I do...sometimes we come at poetry from VERY different directions) so I was intrigued by a post on the blog (here) where she wrote this about one of HappenStance's chapbooks (Tom Duddy's 'The Small Hours' 2006):
“Tom’s (The Small Hours, one of my favourites) isn’t (sold out) – and that is partly because the poet is not a natural self-promoter. His poems are quiet. They sneak up on you sideways. But the deep, quiet excitement I felt when I first read him is with me yet.
Poetry World, alas, has entered celebrity culture. Sometimes I like the fun of that. However, I also lament the pressure it brings for poets to have to be glitzy and out there, blogging, slogging, hogging the limelight.
Some of them should be doing that stuff, no question. It’s what they’re born for (though celebrity should not be equated with genius).
Others should be doing it their own way, skulking between the pages. Let them be hard to find, verschmuggelt. Let them be a well-kennt secret . . .”
That is the kind of thing that draws me in, I suppose, (even if Poetry World and celebrity culture have been pals before...Lord Byron, anyone?). In the post Nelson also linked to another piece online (see here) and this all made me very curious about Irishman Duddy and his wee book of poems (I've read a lot of good poems and stories by Irish writers off and online recently – are you having a golden age over there or what?). So I sent off my £3 to buy 'The Small Hours' (you can buy it here) and when it came I did what you do with a poetry book (why, I read it!). And Nelson was so, so right (she first read him and fell for his work in the poetry magazine 'Magma')...Duddy's poems are irresistible, wonderful, well worth investing in.
Never mind all this effusive behaviour, you say, let's be more precise - what kind of wonderful are these poems exactly? Oh...this is the bit I hate but let's see...how about they are gentle-and-thoughtful wonderful...how would that do for a start? They're also that kind of make-you-want-to-find-Duddy-and-throw-your-arms-round-him wonderful (or maybe that's just me...I am a bit of a hugger...I said a 'I'm a bit of a hugger'). Nelson is quite right about them being quiet poems too...they are so quiet that at times they are almost whispered (but how powerful the right whisper can be). The subject matter is varied - everyday life, conversations in pubs, everyday death, getting old, everyday love, Ireland, everyday sleep and being in bed, social interaction, everyday days out, tiny happenings, everyday poets (like Robert Frost), family relationships, everyday history and progress. They are finely crafted (even I can see that...) and they all make you want to sit still and just think for a while - no disturbances, no modern nonsense (and Duddy's workday subject is philosophy so I suppose that's not really a huge surprise). Duddy teaches philosophy at the University of Ireland, Galway and has written a book called 'A History of Irish Thought' (there's a little bit of author biography here, if you like that kind of thing).
I have to confess that one of my problems with poetry reviews is the way they give you lots of snippets of poems all over the place (to illustrate their argument and so on). Is it just me or does anyone else often find that feature of a review more confusing than elucidating? It works with novels but with poetry...isn't it better to just show a whole poem or two to illustrate the style and content (unless the poems are all ten pages long of course)? I prefer that route so here (with permission from the publisher) is one of Duddy's poems in its entirety. I could've picked several favourites ('The Language of Visitors', 'Harvesters', 'The Life of Robert Frost', 'The Elderberry Tree') but I asked for this one instead. It's a great piece of painting...and a sad song...and a poem too. Clever, eh?
This time last year we joked about the state
of her front gate, while she, down on one knee,
chucked drooling brushfuls of Brilliant White
into flaking weals of rust. We were ironic too
about signs of summer in this neck of the woods -
the wrappers and cans as bright as mushrooms
across the newly mowed green; the back wall
of the community centre running red again
with young love's equations; and OF COURSE
the thrill of lying awake all night again to hear
the best of Chopin from the ghetto blasters!
A sudden sobering of mood then as she left
the paint brush across the tin, straightened (stiffly,
in stages, like a weight-lifter), and came to stand
before me, pulling herself together, pushing
her gold-rims up and back before laying a hand
on the wall between our lives. Your children,
she said, have grown SO tall, SO tall. Do you EVER
feel the time! And both of us stood in awe then
for a moment, prayerfully shaking our heads
as if to misdirect a god, divert some evil eye.
This summer her own tall sons go in and out,
hardly seeing us, hardly speaking. The scrolls
of iron weep with rust, the high grass leans
everywhichway in the garden, and the sycamore -
which the boys SWORE they'd trim back last winter -
scrapes its leaves against an upstairs window where
the curtains have stayed drawn since early June.
by Tom Duddy
from 'The Small Hours' (HappenStance 2006)
Copies are still available. Go buy.
22 minutes ago