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Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 15 Paul Durcan

Prize-winning internationally acclaimed poet from the Irish Republic (Heaney and Muldoon are from the North), whose uniquely original voice and surreal imagination blend social comment on Ireland with manic confidentiality. Sixteen collections (plus a Selected) of self- deprecating, funny, tragic poems, a wonderful balance of intimacy and formality, comedy, sex, Catholicism, relationships and the existential woes of masculinity. Two collections are on paintings: he is brilliant at giving voice to unexpected emotions, symbols and suggestiveness behind a visual scene, especially groups of people. A new collection, Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil, is out this month.

Self-Portrait, Nude with Steering Wheel

I am forty-five and do not

Know how to drive a car

- And you tell me I am cultured.

Forty-five years creeping and crawling about the earth,

Going up and down the world,

And I do not know the difference between a carburettor and a gasket

- And you tell me I am a Homo sapiens.

Forty-five years sitting in the back seat giving directions

- And you say that I am not an egoist.

Forty-five years sitting in the passenger seat

With my gloved hands folded primly in my lap

- And you think I am liberated.

Forty-five years getting in and out of cars

And I do not know where the dipstick is

- And you tell me that I am a superb lover.

Forty-five years grovelling behind a windscreen

- And you talk of my pride and courage and self-reliance.

Forty-five years of not caring to know the meaning of words

Like transmission, clutch, choke, battery, leads

- And you say that I am articulate.

Forty-five years bumming lifts off other people -

And you tell me I am an independent, solitary, romantic spirit.

So it is that you find me tonight

Loitering here outside your front door

Having paid off a taxi in three ten-pound notes,

Nude, with a steering-wheel in my hands.

The poem works through contrasting registers of language. The harsh, self-critical verbs he uses to strip himself bare of any title as a man of culture or of words, as a lover or responsible social being, are vivid, idiomatic, demotic, funny: creeping and crawling / grovelling / bumming / loitering. Utterly different in tone from the emptily abstract praise of liberated/ superb / pride / courage / self-reliance / articulate / independent/ romantic, whose unrealistic distance from ordinary life is underlined early on in the Latin title Homo sapiens. All this praising is, quite literally, in another language from the day-to-day. And day- to-day living, intelligence and independence are supposed (the poem modestly suggests) to depend on driving a car.

So the poem is making a pretty rueful, if not gloomy point, and ends as a naked statement of dependence - on money, taxis, and other people, especially "you"; this person who has showered him with praise and who, he hopes, is about to open her "front door". (All the erotic symbolism of that, especially combined with "nude", is a tradition in male love poetry since Roman times, and hangs hopefully in the air at the end.) But the poem makes its gloomy point with humorously frisky symbolism whose paired connections slyly suggest that "driving a car" sums up all the important things in life: culture, insight, freedom, sex, independence, language. The poem turns into a portrait of the poet as incapable of any of these: supposedly in control of his life but in fact pathetically passive. All he has in his hands is the external image of control, not the thing itself. If you strip him ("nude"), he has no inside knowledge, either of machinery or words. He is steering precisely nothing. Except that he has steered this original poem firmly to its self-deprecating end, and been perfectly in charge of everything, both linguistic registers, both visions, right the way through.

Ruth Padel

`Self-Portrait, Nude with Steering Wheel', appears in Daddy Daddy (Blackstaff Press) and more recently A Snail in My Prime (Harvill)