The Art of Life
London: The Harvill Press, 2004.
Reviewed by Charles Holdefer
Choosing a title like The Art of Life is risky, but the Irish poet Paul Durcan avoids the pitfalls of pomposity by making playfulness an important aesthetic quality in his art, while suggesting more generally that it is also a survival technique in life. Author of twenty books and collaborations, winner of various prizes including the Whitbread Award, Durcan offers fifty-two new poems in this latest volume. Most of the poems are outward-looking, to a rapidly changing Ireland and beyond. But the best poems, for this reviewer, turn the gaze inward, to a self that does not change as much as it attempts to endure.
The book is divided casually into two sections: the first thirty poems evoke a world which is “Irish” (a very flexible term, as we shall soon see); these are followed by twenty poems set in other locales, including Italy, Poland and Japan. Globalization figures prominently in this work but it is neither resisted nor embraced: rather, it is observed with a bemused and critical eye, like an unforeseen and powerful change in weather.
Ireland, for Durcan, is the sum of its related individuals. In "Rosie Joyce," the speaker explains how this works to his new-born granddaughter:
Taken out of context, this can sound rather sentimental. Yet it makes sense that these stanzas were chosen for the volume’s flap copy, as the emphasis on people, in all their variety, is confirmed by poem after poem in The Art of Life. The result is more complicated and nuanced than an appeal to a vague organic ideal.
This is a book of voices. First, there is a speaker who is presented as the poet, who is at turns teasing and curmudgeonly, a self-described “affable, absentminded ass," explicitly referred to as “Paul” in the rueful poem “Women are Brutally Practical People." Maleness is frequently asserted, and fretted about. This speaker often steps aside to make room for other voices, including (among many other examples) an unwed mother, a corporate solicitor, a bishop, a milkman and a ninety-six year old woman commenting on the World Snooker Championship. In some poems, humanity itself proves insufficient and Durcan enlists animals to describe the world, such as a robin in “A Robin in Autumn Chatting at Dawn” or, in “Sandymount Strand Dog Songs,” a basset hound named Flaps. The tone here is wilfully goofy, and on the whole it works. Critical concerns about anthropomorphism are beside the point, and sink under their own weight. Flaps is vain about his ”toothpaste-white / trotters” and longs to flirt with a female basset who is “the spitting image of Mary Robinson” .
Formally speaking, Durcan strives for conversational cadences. The results are mixed. A poem like “The Wilds of Discretion” works very well because the repetition and circumlocution of speech add to the dramatic effect. A repeated “well, you know” becomes an expression of pain or even of something sinister. Ordinary speech is not more “natural” and expeditious; it is full of evasions, as constrained as a villanelle. In “Admission,” perhaps the best poem in this collection, the conversational rhythms suit the anecdote perfectly. Durcan enjoys the role of poet-as-storyteller, and this little tale of mortality and hospital experience displays perfect timing, as the speaker moves in and out of his tale, commenting, quoting others and himself. This successful “orality” is due in no small part to skilful use of typography, enjambment and stanzaic division: a considerable amount of craft is necessary to sound this artless.
Durcan is also very aware of the power of juxtapositions. The poems “The Celtic Tiger” and “HEADLINES” are marked examples, though many other poems use a similar conceit. In “The Celtic Tiger,” two female voices sum up, in a fashion, the contradictions of Ireland: the first voice is a single mother who, despite being raised by nuns in an orphanage and later sold into sexual abuse, sounds happy about her life devoted to her young son; the second voice is a successful “300,000 Euro a year” solicitor who owns three houses, vacations in the Seychelles and is “always in a relationship.” She is the pride of her parents and desires no children. It is the co-existence of these two women, the poem implies, that power “The Celtic Tiger.”
“HEADLINES” applies this technique of incongruous-seeming juxtapositions to a larger, international scene. So-called “ordinary” people like the elderly couple Mr and Mrs John James Reihill might not be newsworthy or notorious by conventional measures, as they go about their lives on an island in Upper Lough Erne, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. They go to mass and buy anniversary cards and consort with their sheepdog, Bonny. But if their names and activities appear alongside those of Ariel Sharon and Donald Rumsfeld and Gerry Adams, then the conventional measures are put into question. Indeed, “HEADLINES” reassesses why news matters and what news is. It suggests, with Whitmanian assurance, that Mr Reihill’s a cup of tea is an important event.
The most stripped-down juxtapositions take the form of aphoristic squibs, often with humorous effect.. These can be quoted in their entirety:
This asperity is lost, however, in other political comments, which do not benefit from the tension of form and which also rely, intellectually speaking, on clichés. When the writer scolds with a megaphone, the message gets distorted. The ineffectual French Left is supposedly “yoghurt-addicted / Volvic-swilling, yoga-agitated” . This is put forward to help explain Le Pen. Jingoistic Americans under George W. Bush not only itch to go to war, but “preferably / World war / Thermonuclear world war” . (Really?) Attacking the oppressive actions of the Catholic Church in 1950s Ireland is one thing; but comparing it to the Communist Party in Poland in the 1950s, as in the poem entitled “The Old Man and the Conference," invites questions. For instance, would Durcan be willing to consider a body count? On such occasions, when straining for significance, the poet trivializes the history he attempts to pontificate about.
There are occasions, too, where this slackness is apparent in the composition of the poems. Instead of a conversational cadence, the reader finds flat prose. The first long stanza of “The New Presbytery, Westport, County Mayo,” though ostensibly the beginning of an oral anecdote, has an affectless quality that is weirdly Warholian and, more damagingly, does not seem to be a part of a larger strategy to make it art. The rambling “Beatrice Monti della Corte von Rezzori” suffers from the same problem, as do a few other poems, which offer ideas in draft form, and few of the pleasures of language.
One gets the sense, reading The Art of Life, that Durcan feels that real men don’t use rhyme or flashy images. At his best, in a poem like “Admission” or “The Beautiful Game” or in a bitter aphorism like “The Incontinence of Fame,” it would be useless to argue with him, because Durcan has found a mode of expression that works exceedingly well: tough but unaffected, nourished by humour but serious about life. The voice is assured and utterly convincing. One need only listen. Tellingly, these poems examine the inner self as much as the outside world: this personalized approach fits.
For the less successful poems, however, a reader can come away with the impression that this naturalistic honesty, which is so wary about putting on airs (and is laudable, when it works), becomes a curious formal puritanism which is horrified of the sin or even suspicion of being fancy. The longest poem in the collection, “Beatrice Monti della Corte von Rezzori,” stretches for hundreds of consistently unsurprising lines, many of them repeated. (Durcan is fond of the chorus device, which unfortunately here and in “The Carnalurgan Milkman” does not intensify, but dilutes the effect of the poem.) The reader would be grateful for a dose of charged language.
It does occur, but sparingly. For instance, consider this description of a mother suffering from Alzheimers: “Only to be festooned / With Dementia’s / Crenellated paper hat” . This is a brilliant image, rich in associations. There are other examples, but generally, Durcan avoids such turns, perhaps fearing they lead down the road of impressionism. A similar restraint is apparent in regard to rhyme. In “Sandymount Strand Dog Songs,” the speaker is rather patronizing toward an old lady who professes to want poetry that rhymes. And indeed, The Art of Life rarely commits that offense. Yet when it does, for instance in “Sleeping Nude” or “The Journey Home from Japan” or at the end of “Beatrice Monti della Corte von Rezzori,” the result is unobjectionable, even satisfying. In these cases, Durcan tolerates rhyme to help achieve closure. For its other usages (such as a means to trigger further associations, to complicate his language), Durcan holds back.
A shift is discernable toward the end of The Art of Life. Here, the reader finds poems devoted to the speaker’s experience in Japan. There is no way of knowing if this arrangement reflects the chronology of composition, but Durcan chooses to end the volume with some of his testier or unhappier poems—which are, on the whole, very good. “On the Road to the Airport” is direct and forceful; its repetitions contribute to the emotion. It successfully illustrates Durcan’s aesthetic and implied attitudes toward the personal and political. The final poem of the collection, “Facing Extinction," adds a surreal note, and manages to be chilling and chipper at the same time. It shows both range and control, and despite the rather bleak situation contemplated and accepted by the speaker—his inevitable demise—the reader is left hoping this is not the end, that this is not goodbye or the last word, but that there will be more to hear from this voice.