POETRY IN BRIEF

2 Christmas Day by Paul Durcan, Harvill pounds 9.99/ pounds 6.99. If you are at all jaded by or cynical about the commercialism of Christmas, you should try this as an antidote. Paul Durcan's new book-length poem portrays the Christmas ritual not so much as spreading goodwill as showing up the fissures and sutures in the protagonists' lives: "Christmas is the Feast of St Loneliness."

Frank and Paul, who are normally alone on Christmas Day, spend it instead together in Frank's "top-storey flat ... In the southern suburbs of / Dublin city" and the poem is made up of conversations which weave in and out of failed loves, past disappointments and the death of parents. Both are lonely in different ways and in Paul's eyes they are "two turkeys / Sitting down to Christmas Dinner/ In excitement, yet grief."

Paul is revealed to the reader in a series of intimate and brutally honest confessions. His loneliness doesn't have a frighteningly desperate edge; it is more a resigned, attritive solitude, his hair is "grey from woman-hunger", and halfway through the day he suddenly exclaims: "forgive me for raising my voice ... But the womanloneliness is beginning to get to me, Frank."

Despite the unquestionable dignity of the two characters, this poem is bleaker than Durcan's other works. He is a master of minor tragedies and melancholy, self-mocking humour. Don't be intimidated by the idea of a lengthy poem: Durcan is utterly at ease within the form. The demotic language and the short, rhythmic lines pull you on through even the most painful recollections of the men. It is a beautiful, poignant and wry piece of writing. The firm yet hesitant friendship between these two men is the most genuine note of goodwill you could come across in a whole month of Christmases. Maggie O'Farrell

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