BOOK REVIEW / Grave and muffled beats: Dante's drum-kit by Douglas Dunn: Faber, pounds 12.99/pounds 6.99

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
DOUGLAS DUNN likens his craft to gardening; but there are times when his verse seems too thickly planted with phrases, not all of them closely connected to the syntactical stem of a poem.

Once particular variety, the free-standing possessive with an abstract, classical flavour ('Infinity's emigrant', 'Eternity's acoustics', 'Pity's Statistic', 'Discovery's digits'), crops up in otherwise very different poems in this new collection; and the first section of 'Dressed to Kill', a sequence about Scottish soldiering, consists of 16 rhymed kennings for bagpipe music ('Xenophobia's solo', 'Chauvinist's wallow' etc). There is virtuosity in this, but 'Dressed to Kill' as a whole exemplifies Dunn's venial overindulgence: written originally for television, it lacks the finish its place in the volume requires. Its inclusion, and that of say a dozen other pieces, may make the book more various (or perhaps just more - 145 pages), but tends to obscure what is happening in the fine poems at the heart of it: Dunn's exploration of what the forms and conventions of ghost poetry can and can't offer him.

'Dante's drum-kit' is one of Dunn's several phrases for terza rima, the verse form of Dante's Divine Comedy, and ever since the measure in which we can expect the dead to speak. In this century, T S Eliot (in 'Little Gidding') and Seamus Heaney (in much of the 'Station Island' sequence) have developed versions in English as a medium for encountering the ghosts of other writers; now Dunn uses it in 'Disenchantments', the longest and most ambitious poem here, described on the jacket as 'a meditation on the afterlife', though it's more fun than that.

But Dunn - most celebrated as the author of Elegies for his first wife, and a thoroughgoing secularist - won't pretend that the dead come back. His 'ghosts' don't talk: 'Only in life's interior extra sense / Are they glimpsed, tending a geranium.' They appear here instead to serve the poet impersonally with intuitions about history and continuity. In the key poem, 'Body Echoes', the shapes of ordinary Scotsmen and women evoke those of their predecessors through the ages, until Dunn is made to register a 'monstrous permanence' of drizzle and deprivation, each local incarnation one faceless line among others that multiply as his phrases do elsewhere: 'I've seen her headscarfed, / Soaked, by the door of a spectral byre, or / Hearing her weight against a frosted pump / Or beating passive cattle with a stick.'

The archetypal Janet and Jock that emerge are called 'national halves', and they feature in a number of remarkable poems, in the third of the book's five sections: on one side, in 'Queen February', the wintry spirit of Northern girlhood unleashed in vengeful weather; on the other, in the solemn and impressive 'Bare Ruined Choirs', a blind beggar-minstrel, whose tapping stick Dunn takes up as a prosodic baton. They are united in 'Poor People's Cafes' as a moving emblem of unending humiliation, their daily round rendered in a poll-tax-pinched and straitened stanza:

He talks to a cup;

She stirs their tea

Then holds it up,

A wedded pity

In how they share -

Her sip, his sip:

It looks like a prayer,

Companionship

In a belief

In the unknown,

Elderly grief.

In 'Preserve and Renovate', another particularly well-made poem, the language of perpetual torment (that of the head-eating Ugolino, in a portion of the Inferno that Heaney has translated) adheres briefly to the author, while the ghost that is released - through looking at another old man painting his garden fence - is that of his industrious father:

I could gnaw

At that facsimile for ever more;

But I know who I lack

Not him, but that dead, distant door

Who looked like him, who draws me back and back.

But this grieving note is untypical. If Dunn's vision of a 'monstrous permanence' has none of the consolations of religion about it, if it disdains the supernatural, still its recognition affords him moments of what you might call spiritual pleasure. In 'Body Echoes', tremendous claims are made for a Vermeeresque glimpse of 'a girl shaking her hands / at a sink' (though this is certainly an instance of a poet telling what he might be showing): 'It has a very deep sweetness, / This moment, colossal sugar, brilliant / Ambrosial light'. And Dunn's own prospective afterlife is imagined less as something out of the Inferno, or the sixth book of Virgil's Aeneid, than as a dream from the latter's Georgics, his celebration of agricolas or husbandry (a word which appears several times here). Given his unlikely choice, this most Augustan of Scots poets would settle forever in a smallholding whose virtues would be those of his own verse, a type he has defined as 'native classic':

make mine pagan, please, Republican,

Domestic, set in very private grounds,

A spacious grave where all five senses quicken.

Comments