Issue 10

Winter 2014


Tom Duddy, The Years, HappenStance, 80pp, £12 hb

This book was not sent to me for review. Helena (Nell) Nelson, who is HappenStance Press, sent me a copy as a gift. She sent it not because I’m a mendicant poet who’ll take whatever’s on offer, nor because she is swayed by the smarm of my many letters trying to persuade her to publish my work (she sees through them straight away). No, she sent it because she is proud of this book, because she thinks it's something a reader like me might particularly value.

She was right. 

I think, if she weren’t running a business which depended on selling books like this, she’d give it to you, too. It’s the sort of book you want people to own. Not to enjoy, as such – that’s not quite the right word. But to absorb, to believe in, to read in moments of quiet contemplation, to appreciate not merely the words, but the man within them.

Physically it is a beautiful book. I’ve seen a couple of gorgeous hardbacks recently from Longbarrow, and they were objects I lusted after (my desires are simple ones). But this is even more desirable – a book I simply like to carry around, to hold, not necessarily to read, merely to have in my hand. This careful and restrained design honours the work within and is a pleasure to own. Thanks, Nell.

Now, I’m aware I’m taking a reverential tone here and reviewers should be stern, frowning, sceptical. I can’t take that line with this book. It's a book that may not be to everyone’s taste, but it fits mine perfectly. Some might call elements of it prosaic, some might find various line breaks odd, some may feel it is too simple, or too personal, too restrained, too undemonstrative, too descriptive. All these adjectives apply, it’s true – but they’re inappropriately shoved here against the adverb “too”. 

Let’s take the structural thing first, the idea that parts of some poems are a little prosaic. Many are constructed as a sequence of storytelling sentences. But they are given gentle cadence and movement. They're more than mere prose. This happens mainly through that kind of line break which tilts the sentence into the next line. It could be done badly, where sense is merely cut at unexpected moments to create an artificial tension or an unexpected shift. Maybe Duddy does that occasionally, but I can’t spot an example of it. Instead his breaks seem carefully judged to move the poem along fluidly, convincingly. They feel like a conversation in the head, a series of observations, views, self-reports, reflections. It’s done with care and delicacy, yielding poems which, though they rarely employ any vocabulary beyond the everyday, seem somehow lucent, contemplative. 

The next charge that might be levelled against these poems is that they are “merely” personal. The Years are the years of Duddy’s own life which was perhaps not an exceptional life. This collection is posthumous, though, which overlays it with inescapable poignancy. It’s impossible to say how resonant they might be without that knowledge, but with it, they are strongly evocative.

Poems early in the volume focus on his childhood. Later poems contemplate illness, his coming death and, briefly, its aftermath. So we have reflections on the past, nostalgic reporting of familiar encounters and events, often subjects and viewpoints which are quotidian. Readers of poetry are used, of course, to nostalgia, loss, aging, decline as themes and may even feel jaded by such topics. But Duddy’s talent is to distil the essence from an event in his quiet reporting, and make it vibrate with a silent echo, like the aftersound of a struck bell. 

Consider this complete poem, “Elsewhere”:

The places we tramped, over and over

the street past the barns
the soft-tarred road
the earthen lane

our minds going wild with the thought
of elsewhere, are themselves now

a lost world, impossible
to visit again, except
in troubled sleep.

The subject is very familiar – looking back to that time when we looked excitedly forward. The language could hardly be simpler. But look at how it is used. No person is specified, no place or time – yet childhood is instantly evoked. Those three italicised lines effectively say the same thing three times, but we don’t notice that, until we reflect on it, so that threefold structure at once emphasises the single point (our many apparently different ways of travelling) and sets up resonance by doing so: in fact, though they appear different, they’re the same. All roads lead the same way. We all follow the same path, whatever road we seem to be on; we go over the same ground, with the same destination.

At the same time words like “tramped”, “barns”, “earthen” evoke a pastoral nostalgia, consonant with many childhoods, confirmed with “the wild” (the childhood idyll of the wilderness).  “Wild” also does double duty as “excited”, describing the child's prospect of the future, that other place, that unknown country. The progressive movement of that single sentence places us in the idyllic past, brings us forward to that past’s future, tells us that the future sees that past has irrevocably gone, and with it every promise it offered. In sleep we may revisit it, hope to recover the idyll, but that hope necessarily will be troubled by its search for the lost elsewhere, together with its lost promise of the future elsewhere, both of them imagined lands. It is one perfect, complex thought rendered as simply as might be, with no gloss, no explanation, perhaps even no expectation of anything other than an unconscious evocation and recognition.

I’m afraid I could rhapsodise in such a way over at least half the poems in this book. Yet their deceiving simplicity means that they will be quickly and readily consumed by those not alert to them as “sentimental” or “merely descriptive”. In fact, Duddy does seem to me to err towards the simply descriptive at times, and might almost be conscious of that tendency himself, as he tends to bolster the more descriptive poems with adjectives to hold it down. The weakest poem in the volume, to my mind, is “The Glass Negative”, in which almost every noun is modified, and we have sentences like:

                        Deeply tanned, dressed
in shades of white, these glazed ghosts
on their ivory bench under a livid sky
are far more promising ancestors
than the gaunt, dark-suited exiles
who stare from the family sepias.

Admittedly, he’s attempting a difficult descriptive task here, characterising the black and whites of a negative on glass, but to do this he has to use “dark” three times, “white” three times and a spattering of adjectives to get his description across. Whilst it’s vivid enough (another word used in the poem), it seems to me rather overdone especially given the benchmarks of restraint established in the best of this collection.

I found several of these poems, especially those towards the end of the collection, profoundly moving. Its pared language is that of gentle acceptance, of settling for the ordinary, everyday world, of finding value in small things, of treasuring the gift of whatever comes and the bare comforts of whatever remains to be felt:

the fires of winter at which 
I shall sit again, eyes closed,
back turned squarely to the world,
mindful only of the waves
of cold and blessed rain
pulsing against the dark glass.

(Night Rain)

As such, he creates a meditative, shining poetry that reminds of oriental contemplation, every detail being transient, evoking the beauty consequent upon transience and so perhaps the essence of the lyric. Here is an ending, a simple observation of someone leaving a run-of-the-mill company meeting, its “Company”:

The one who has gone first into the late evening
is halfway to the iron stairway that goes down
to the service-road beside which there grows
a wild border of loosestrife and meadowsweet.

This is carefully crafted simplicity which echoes and reminds and resonates and sings, where the meaning of the poem is not the meaning of the poem, but something beneath, hinted at with a gesture, off-stage.

It’s this further strand of meaning which makes the poems so powerful. They do not talk of death or loss. They do not unpick regret, failure or weakness. They do not catalogue fallibility, mourn the passage of time, scream at the frustrations of decline, catalogue the constrictions of age and illness. Yet these things glimmer around poem after poem, shivering in the white space around the text.