BOOKS / IN THE FRAME: Give me your hand

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The Independent Culture
THE TITLE of Paul Durcan's collection of poems, Give Me Your Hand (Macmillan pounds 9.99), is not as innocent an invitation as it sounds. Seemingly casual and friendly, it is actually an attempt to fix the relation between poet and reader before the book has even been opened.

The 50 poems in the book were loosely inspired by paintings in the National Gallery, London. The poet's role is didactic, casting himself as so undaunted by great art that he can regard the work of Mantegna and Caravaggio as a jumping-off point. The reader, by contrast, needs a guide or mentor - is so wary of Rubens, Cranach et al as to require Durcan's reassuring presence in order to enter the world of the book.

There is something worryingly de haut en bas about this, playing as it does on the natural hesitancy of people who are not themselves artists or art historians towards images which have received the official sanction of being exhibited in a state-owned gallery. You have only to see the puzzled frowns on the faces of visitors to the Tate's current Picasso exhibition to know that the reticence of the non- expert can be overly restrictive, denying people honest reactions to dispiriting paintings and ugly sculptures. But Durcan's self-congratulatory iconoclasm often does little more than embody the opposite tendency, which is to mock what you are not immediately able to comprehend.

This makes him a hopelessly unreliable guide. It does not add anything to our viewing of Pisanello's The Virgin and Child with Saints Anthony Abbot and George to know that Durcan has spotted a (slight) resemblance between one of the saints and the pop singer Boy George: 'I am a curly-headed, cocky, moody, young stockbroker,/A Goldilocks barely out of my teens,/Boy George the Twenty- Third.' Paul Durcan's conceit in the same poem that the cloud of glory surrounding the Virgin is actually a visual manifestation of motor neurone disease strains after poetic effect but comes across as ignorance of the painting's iconography.

The art critic Bryan Robertson, in a distinctly nervous introdution to Give Me Your Hand, suggests that the 'poems have poetic self-sufficiency and keep the paintings firmly in their place'. This begs the question of what is their place, given that the poems would not exist without the paintings. 'They are not concerned', says Robertson, 'with the description or interpretation that our sober art historian could provide.' That is fair enough, or would be if the poems made the kind of imaginative leap which would allow Durcan's fresh vision to co-exist comfortably with the artist's original intention.

What we get in many of these poems, however, is weak satire, something which comes perilously close to philistine sneering; Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews appear as a warring couple of whom the vain, childless wife secretly plots her husband's murder. Two themes dominate, one of them a schoolboyish tendency to read an inappropriate sexual subtext into almost any type of picture. Nicolaes Mies's charming domestic interior A Sleeping Maid and her Mistress, which reveals the easy relationship between the two women of the title, is transformed into a story about the mistress pimping for her son ('My dear little son Tom/Likes his slice of breast') and the maid's consequent sexual exhaustion.

The other theme which surfaces repeatedly is a sneering antagonism between men and women. Saints Peter and Dorothy by the Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece becomes a meditation by a scheming young woman to marry and control a man 30 years older than herself. Titian's Death of Actaeon inspires a poem in which Diana, 'a flaming feminist' and TV personality, abandons her artist spouse and as a final coup de grace presents a television programme about his work.

The women in these poems don't like men much, either. 'Pity about Samson', says Delilah in a poem to accompany a famous Mantegna picture. 'He got what he wanted - /Got to die in my arms,/Making love to me.' The Rokeby Venus speaks in a voice which is both sentimental and self-pitying: 'Is that not what a woman is -/A kicked-over heap of tears?'

It is a habit of Durcan's in this collection to appropriate someone else's voice, frequently a woman's, and the result is painfully ventriloquial. That few of the poems work is not really surprising, given their number and the artificiality of the exercise; how many writers, I wonder, would expect to be inspired or even moved by so many images? What is unexpected is the narrowness of Durcan's emotional response, the smallness of his preoccupations in the face of art which varies in quality but is frequently thrilling and transcendent.

I am a curly-headed, cocky, moody young stockbroker

A Goldilocks barely out of my teens,

Boy George the Twenty-Third.

What I live for

Is my new sports car,

An Alfa Romeo

With a brace of fillies,

A red and a grey,

Cresting my bonnet.

I fancy myself.

I do not aim to stick around for the Flood.

(Photograph omitted)