Through a glass sharply;Books

14th May 1999 at 01:00
GREETINGS TO OUR FRIENDS IN BRAZIL: 100 Poems. By Paul Durcan. Harvill Press pound;14.99. ONE MAN BAND: poems without words. By James Kirkup. Hob Editions pound;6.75.

I crave from a book what every other fiction addict craves: that contradictory fix of absorption and escapism, something to feel safe inside on a train. Poetry rarely approaches this sort of pleasure. But I have found a rare exception: Paul Durcan's new collection is a page-turner, a fiction-reader's fix, a set of words I was sad to see the last of, and one I will re-read, not because I didn't get it first time, but because I want a re-run. The nearest thing to its particular brand of reading pleasure would be Alice Munro's short stories (only shorter), or Garrison Keillor when Lake Wobegon was still the surreal predecessor of Twin Peaks.

Poetry often claims to celebrate the present moment by lifting the veil of any point in time and seeing it through a glass sharply, but Paul Durcan's poetry takes this very process as its central subject matter. Several of the poems use as their titles dates, places and times; others give a specific setting.

This route to the heart of the matter has been described as "the manner of a provincial newspaper report". Durcan acknowledges a debt to another poet, Patrick Kavanagh, for introducing to Irish poetry the notion that "a poem is at its most poetic the more you can introduce the prose line."

The particular effect of this narrative cleanness and precision in Durcan's work is to allow for the sublime. The reader is not lured into the surreal or the supernatural, but rather accepts the infinite possibilities of the ghosts and other countries that make up the present moment.

The title of the collection is taken from a radio football commentary, played alongside the television coverage. It is nearly the close of the match.

"On my watch it says only two minutes and fifty-three seconds left but we haven't had time to send greetings to our friends in Brazil Prinnsias O Murchu and Rugierio da Costa e Silva."

Brazil ambushes the "alternative" commentary of the radio, opening a world of different cadences. When, in "Meeting the President (August 31, 1995)", Paul Durcan writes that during the course of the drive to meet the Irish president his dead father climbs into the car and "shoulders me aside" we have no reason to doubt that their worlds have overlapped in the present as well as in memory:

"As I get older, my father gets younger.

My hands on the driving wheel are my father's hands.

My shoulders in the driving seat are my father's shoulders."

Worlds do collide and interrupt each other. They implore each other from across divides of countries and of death, they send messages in litanies of the dead, and in the best poetry they do so without drum rolls or lurid special effects.

A similar striving for clarity seems to lie behind the title of James Kirkup's new collection One Man Band: poems without words. The poet introduces the work by explaining that although the poems use words, they should be read through them, past them, as if the writing were "invisible ink, allowing real things to emerge out of the mists of little black signs".

The poems are indeed focused on the visual, responding to art and architecture, but their pleasures are rooted in very precise and entertaining word-play. "Villanelle on a TV Jingle" matches the obsessive cycle of its form with a truly apt subject matter - "At every hour, in sun or rain taking a shower or on the 'phone it tortures us with its refrain."

The less obviously structured poems are no less well made or closely observed. "In the Train: Rome - Naples" is typical in tripping delicately over its line-endings to achieve an apparently artless spring in its step.

There is, after all, no shortage of poetry books to rely on for train journeys.

Sian Hughes

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