BOOK REVIEW / The Butterfly is the hardest stroke: A snail in my prime: New and Selected Poems Paul Durcan Harvill / Blackstaff Press pounds 16 / pounds 7.95

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The Independent Culture
PAUL DURCAN's reputation in Britain has lagged far behind his popularity in Ireland, which exceeds that of Heaney. The reasons are not hard to spot: titles like 'What is a Protestant, Daddy?', and 'Priest Accused of not Wearing Condom' (not included here) create an instant frisson for an Irish audience, and signal Irish introversion to others. But since he won the Whitbread Award for Poetry in 1990 his star has been in the ascendant. This fine edition and the UK tour he is undertaking will set the seal on the new universal Durcan.

Durcan writes in brogue, the language so simple it almost eludes poetry, but the essence of brogue is poetic - its narrative propulsion, its quizzical tone. One poem here ('Tullynoe: Tete-a-Tete in the Parish Priest's Parlour') takes the form of a dialogue in which both speakers begin each line and sentence with 'He did', 'He had' etc. It might be a set-piece in a Brian Friel play. The poet he most resembles is Patrick Kavanagh, although in the early poem 'They Say the Butterfly is the Hardest Stroke' (he likes oblique, contrived titles) he claims to have read neither Kavanagh nor Joyce, but only to have dipped into them 'to keep in touch with minds kindred in their romance with silence'. The poem is revealing of his stance in general, and ends: 'Of the song of him with the world in his care / I am content to know the air.'

But Durcan favours the longer poem, and usually relies on a conceit to sustain it: a life seen through the stairs a man has climbed or sat on, making love to a football backdrop ('I want you to bend me and curl me and chip me / I want to wear your shirt and you to wear mine'), or 'My Beloved Compared to a Pint of Stout'. He pursues these conceits doggedly and usually the conclusion is the sum of the parts rather than a blinding epiphany - he's not the kind of poet whose last lines you can anthologise: 'Punters scoff a lot of coleslaw in the National Gallery of Ireland'; 'All our daughters grown up and gone away'.

But Durcan's confidence is always formidable, has increased over the years and one of his most recent poems, 'A Spin in the Rain with Seamus Heaney', an exercise in that most difficult of genres, a greeting to a fellow poet, is something of a triumph. Their styles are worlds apart - Heaney, the worrier in the word- hoard, burnishing his vocabulary; Durcan the antipoetic strategist determined to keep himself unliterary. But a desultory game of table tennis struck up between the two poets provides the perfect halfway house.

It is reminiscent of Heaney's own use of metaphorical mediation between poetry and another activity in his fishing poem for Ted Hughes, 'Casting and Gathering', and ends in a blaze that is at once both Heaneyesque and pure Durcan: 'Poetry] To be able to look a bullet in the eye, / With a whiff of the bat to return it spinning to drop / Down scarcely over the lapped net; to stand still; to stop'.

Durcan is a legendary reader of his poetry, and this has taken him across the globe. Unlike some poets who travel to read their home-grown poems and then go home to write more of the same, travel constantly generates Durcanesque occasions for poetry. Trips to Russia in the Eighties furnished half a collection (incidentally, love is probably made more often in Durcan's poems than in anyone else's in Russia, on the Moscow-Leningrad Express a girl invites him into her bunk, and tells him: 'You are snowing on my tail, my dear man'). Durcan is not Larkin - he seems to make things happen around him - but he's pretty odd, all the same. He likes telling fibs about himself - 'I am an art gallery attendent', 'I am a lion tamer' - and some of his aphorisms will command less than universal assent: 'A man's own ordure / is the basis of culture'. Francis Bacon is a tutelary spirit, and the book's epigraph is Bacon's statement that 'I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail . . .'

Durean extends this to a snail's view of his own life as a mess of desires akin to the ineluctable tropisms of the snail ('I am not a womanizer / I am a snail'), and imagined himself buried in the neolithic passage grave at Newgrange, all passion spent ('no more antler, no more horn'). This is a richer, more resonant, than anything else in the book, and is reminiscent of Heaney's archaeological poems, fragmenting humanity into organic detritus and petrified artefects. Whether the corbels of Newgrange will be the capstone of his career we shall have to wait and see, but meanwhile the snail has left a phosphorescent trail in the dark.