Although they are very different poets, what their Lifesaving Poems have in common is that I heard them before I read them, feeling them on the pulse as it were, before seeing them in black and white.
Ian Duhig’s ‘From the Irish’ is justly well-known, which he has nevertheless named ‘the most unsuccessful love poem of the past fifty years’. I saw him read it on a programme devoted to the art of love poetry on BBC2 in the early 1990’s. Poetry on telly was not common in those days and YouTube clips of poets and their performances did not exist. I taped it, as you did then, onto an actual video tape, and must have watched it a dozen times over the years. It was one of those Who’s Who? type of programmes, full to bursting with name after glittering name talking straight to camera about love in kitchens, restaurants and parks.
I liked Ian Duhig’s poem straight away. First of all, he looked like he was having the best of times, as if at any moment he might stop and say so. He communicated this with a wry grin and an almost slow-motion delivery, savouring every syllable. (Much as he did last night, as it happens).
He also came across as someone not afraid to send himself up, saying if memory serves that what his wife would prefer him to show his love for her by doing the washing up for once. Lastly he freely admitted the poem stemmed from learning Irish words from a dictionary -and getting their meaning wrong. You can read about this and listen to the poem here, at the Poetry Archive.
From the Irish
According to Dineen, a Gael unsurpassed
in lexicographical enterprise, the Irish
for moon means ‘the white circle in a slice
of half-boiled potato or turnip’. A star
is the mark on the forehead of a beast
and the sun is the bottom of a lake, or well.
Well, if I say to you your face
is like a slice of half-boiled turnip,
your hair is the colour of a lake’s bottom
and at the centre of your eyes
is the mark of the beast, it is because
I want to love you properly, according to Dineen.
Ian Duhig, from The Bradford Count (Bloodaxe Books, 1991)
I heard Maura Dooley’s poem ‘Mansize’ in very different circumstances. I was stuck in traffic at the time, in Tooting in south London. This was a very hectic time of life, which I have written about before, in which the acts of reading, listening to, talking about and writing poems seemed every bit as important as getting my children dressed and fed each morning.
Seldom alone, in the car or anywhere else, I switched on the radio to listen to the old Radio 4 arts programme Kaleidoscope, as I crawled along. The announcer’s voice cut straight to Maura’s own reading ‘Mansize’ from her book Explaining Magnetism.
I was struck immediately by the poem’s intimate mode of address, speaking directly both to its subject and reader with apparent artless disregard for everything other than telling the truth. As with ‘From the Irish’ it is about much more than it is about: gender, age, history, resistance, language and freedom. But there isn’t a word of it that is difficult. Like many of Maura’s poems, it wields the most gentle of stilettos.
I think nowadays I could have ordered Explaining Magnetism on my Amazon app before reaching Balham. Back then I had to ring up an actual bookshop and spell the authors name and publisher to them on the phone, then wait two weeks, before I could hear it again.
In the words of John Logan’s poem ‘The Picnic’, both of these poems entered my life at a moment when I was determined to be receptive to poems ‘talk[ing] in another way I wanted to know’. This is what I mean by poems having the capacity to save lives: sitting on a sofa or stationary on the south circular, once they enter you nothing is ever the same.
Now you aren’t here I find
myself ironing linen squares,
three by three, the way
my mother’s always done,
the steel tip steaming over your
blue initial. I, who resent
the very thought of this back-breaking
ritual, preferring radiator-dried
cottons, stiff as boards, any amount
of crease and crumple to this
soothing, time-snatching chore.
I never understood my father’s trick,
his spare for emergencies, but was glad
of its airing-cupboard comforts often enough:
burying my nose in it, drying my eyes
with it, staunching my blood with it,
stuffing my mouth with it. His expedience,
my mother’s weekly art, leaves me
forever flawed: rushing into newsagents
for Kleenex, rifling your pockets in the cinema,
falling on those cheap printed florals.
What I really want is Irish linen,
shaken out for me to sink my face in,
the shape and scent of you still warm
in it, your monogram in chainstitch
at the corner. Comforter, seducer, key witness
to it all, my neatly folded talisman,
my sweet flag of surrender.
Maura Dooley, from Explaining Magnestism (Bloodaxe, 1991)
(Sculptor: Colin Mallett)