Thursday 24 May 2007

Ian Duhig - Brilliance marking time

You would have to be some kind of sectarian moron not to recognize Ian Duhig as a genius. After three collections of learned and vigorous but aslo entertaining and deeply moral work, he published in 2003 a book that so far ranks as his masterpiece, The Lammas Hireling. In this collection, he managed to balance the mercurial density and allusive intelligence of his earlier work with a more consistent evocation of the painful mystery of life and a very particular landscape, that of Northumbria. This slight relaxation found expression in his increased skill and fondness for dramatic monologues and ballads. It was a work that showed him a poet of greater humanity and moral force than Muldoon, to whom he owes something, and one of greater power to uplift than Peter Reading, with whose indignation he has something in common. One sees that he has greater consistency of vision than some more restless, equally mercurial poets. That vision was one anchored in a Christianity of right action rather than of transcendence, despite all the ludic rummaging through dictionaries and contemporary popular culture. His gleamingly brilliant surface sound textures (I think of both the title poem and the more entertaining poem, Blood) and his gifts of description alone make one, if ones honest, weep with envy at the way in which he is, like the first line of Auden's The Novelist, 'encased in a talent like a uniform'.

Is there an even greater achievement in his new collection, The Speed of Dark, which is organized around a re-imagining of Le Roman de Fauvel, a medieval French satire against power and hypocrisy that Duhig appropriates? To be sure, there is plenty to savour. Duhig is unafraid to be rhetorical, and would make an excellent poet laureate, which is not meant as a criticism at all. His Shakespearean sonnet on the opposition across the world to gay marriage ("But if I lie, then Shakespeare couldn't scan/ no woman woman love, nor man loved man") is a masterpiece of 'public' verse. Civility, and the rootedness of the significance of human life in its occasions (birth, marriage, deaths, a recent war and so on), must be enriched by the freshness of genuinely poetic language operations - if , when your talents range as widely over so many modes as Duhig, you can't write something true to console a friend who's just lost their father, or if at least, your conception of poetry bars you from doing so before you've even tried, something's surely gone wrong? In the same way, his oblique comment on mutual religious and racial suspicion in the wake of the London July 2005 bombings is marvellously well-judged.

The continuing drop in tautness, however, produces sometimes less satisfactory results. There are a handful of poems that don't quite achieve the sense of thrill and surprise that characterize his best work. The cod occult learning that he displays in his poem, Rider, is rather obvious, and drags on a bit, and, unlike elsewhere in the book, the joky scholarship doesn't really add anything insight to the poem. It's an entertaining dramatic monologue about the search for significance, but lacks in both emotional punch and intellectual range. At other times, there is a flatness that feels like haste, such as is his tribute to Johnny Cash:

He wore black, he had sung, 'for the poor and beaten
Down/living in the hopeless hungry side of town'.
For my line, I took his gospel message and bent it
Out of true to break images. I think he meant it.

Although Duhig's outrage at the appropriation of black music by whites is given a bit of depth by the religious register invoked by the reference to iconoclasm in the last line, compared to his last work, one comes away with a definite sense of dimming of energies. Sometimes the political criticism (like that of Paul de Man and Sarkozy) is just name-calling, and lacks the depth of imaginative engagement with their world to be truly first rate satire (compare Douglas Oliver's similarly medievally inspired, The Infant and the Pearl, which manages to build up greater coherence and depth in the satirized object). Of course, one might justify such name calling by noting that Fauvel's own mode was pretty rough, so that's just what Duhig is doing here, and be done with it.

But perhaps it is that Fauvel model that is the problem after all. Publishers want *collections* of poetry, a unified body of work. Simply stringing together a range of one's effusions will not do. There is, of course, plenty to be said for this approach. But what if that's just not your bag? Duhig clearly does not naturally think in terms of collections or long poetic projects, and yet obviously feels he should try. He doesn't even like writing long poems, though this is perhaps a rather banal way of putting the point. He is a poet of humane piecemeal response to the world. to relationships and to his reading. A couple of poems based around the Fauvel poem would have made the point.

Still, we'd all give our eye teeth to write as well or to have as much ethical power. Duhig may not be, as Ruth Padel's blurb has it, the *most original* poet of his generation. He is not interested in pushing the boundaries of formal tecnique and of perspective (as Peter Larkin's work is). He is, furthermore, deeply marked by Muldoon. If not, however, the most original poet, Duhig remains one of the very best.

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