The Laughter Of Mothers, by Paul Durcan

A son's compassionate, poetic and surreal tribute to his mother

Paul Durcan's new collection of poems pays tribute to the life of his mother, Sheila MacBride. A niece of John MacBride, executed in 1916 for his part in the Easter Rising, Durcan's mother gave up a promising career as a solicitor by marrying into the "black, red-roaring, fighting Durcans of Mayo". Durcan's poems switch between her voice and his, as well as others', as narrative history becomes increasingly surreal, with personal dramas and passing anecdotes refined to the point where they transform into parable.

In "Little Old Lady", we see his mother the proud owner of a "steel-and-rope trapeze, which she installed/ In a niche above the kitchen door./ 'It's compact,' she confided one lunchtime./ 'It folds up and folds down like a dream.'" It is precisely this ability to unfold the narrative, to give it the depths and resonances as well as the ambiguities of a dream, on which Durcan's reputation lies. True to form, he manages to balance the raconteur's embellishments and deadpan ironies with sudden changes of gear into lyricism.

"Golden Mothers Driving", for example, one of the most wonderfully poignant poems, figures his mother as an escapee from her nursing home, in a stolen car, "Driving west to Streamstown three miles outside Westport,/ Where on afternoons in September 1920,/ Ignoring the roadblock and the assassinations,/ They used to walk down Sunnyside by the sea's edge,/ The curlews and the oystercatchers,/ The upturned back currachs drying out on the stones,/ And picnic on the machair grass above the seaweed,/ Under the chestnut trees turning autumn gold/ And the fuschia bleeding like troups of crimson-tutu'd/ ballerinas in the hedgerows."

In the long poem "September 11th, 2001", Durcan and his mother watch the events unfold on television in a Winston nursing home: "Her sheep's eyes staring at me/ Imploring all that sheep's eyes can implore:/ Why hast thou forsaken me?/ On autopilot I stammer the words/ Of Rhymes and Psalms the only words that mean anything to Mummy,/ For whom men's words are measly/ Or beastly or better not said at all:/ Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool/ I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills whence cometh my help."

Risky, complex, full of compassion, Durcan's interrogations of storytelling itself, of the juxtapositions and confluences of personal history and political struggle, are a bristling tour de force.

<3>By Deryn Rees-Jones

Harvill Secker, 12. Order for 11 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897

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