The Sunday Poem No 50: Ian Duhig

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work
American Graffiti

I. Women's Room

I open for you my mouth. I open for you

My two eyes, the white chambers of my skull;

From my old tongue, your sentences will rise

For I am Goddess Tlaelquani, Eater of Excrement,

Sister of Tlazolteotl. Problems with your partner?

I cut off his eggs with my obsidian glass knife.

Perhaps your employer is harassing you?

I gut him and stuff the corpse with chocolate.

Maybe a cab-driver has over-charged you?

I sacrifice his first-born to the Plumed Serpent.

See? I've a knack for this sort of thing

And you worship me just by sitting here,

A grudge at your breast, adjusting the mask.

My mouth is closed. Open your mouth. Ask.

II. Men's Room

Your look flickers across disinfected surfaces,

Starting from all eye-contact as if it burned

For this is the time and temple of reflection,

Of Tlaelquani's sister, I, great Tlazolteotl,

Goddess of scum and the skeletons in their closets.

Should I lick the half-moon on my thumbnail,

Your manhood's index weeps itself to death

Like a candle running down a feast day skull.

This image degrades men, it's true, but I light

Everything they think they've got away with,

The footprints of liars where they first fell:

Hell creeps back up them to you like a slow fuse

And it won't be enough to piss on your shoes.

A winner of the National Poetry competition, born in London of Irish parents and educated at Leeds, an erstwhile social worker and one of the most original, eclectic and intelligent poets of the fortysomething generation. His poetry, learned, rude, elegant, sly and funny, mixes gilded images, belly-laughs and esoteric lore about language (including Irish), art, history, politics and children's word-games. Three collections.

This two-parter was commissioned for the Salisbury Arts Centre toilets. I've seen both in situ: the first in lipstick-like red plastic on a mirror, the second in leaden plastic on a wall. Only Duhig would approach this commission via a pair of Mexican goddesses. They may not even be real. Sly and playful as Muldoon, Duhig is quite capable of inventing his lore. But for the purposes of the poem, here they are: the toilet goddess plus her sister of the urinal.

The first has 14 lines: a sonnet. Both poems end sonnet-like in rhyming couplets. The inverted opening (for you my mouth rather than my mouth for you) says we are in strange territory, with an archaic, ceremonious speaker: a personified toilet with a skull of white chambers. Vowel-echoes begin with eyes, rise, knife; skull is echoed in Tlazolteotl whose OT is echoed by chocolate; Excrement is balanced by Serpent: the AR of partner re-appears in glass, charged, ask, mask. The female ferocity through the poem (castrating partners, gutting bosses) is underpinned by an echo from the most violent and imaginative of 20th-century women poets. I've a knack for this sort of thing hisses with Plath's "Lady Lazarus" claim to do dying "exceptionally well". Why should these worshippers bear a grudge at their breast? This is a male-oriented poem, all through. Duhig homes in on ancient man-made connections between waste, pollution, murder, resentment, femaleness and cursing (see From my old tongue, your sentences will rise). The Greek Furies incarnated female disgustingness but also embodied curses. Tony Harrison translated them "god-grudges" in his version of Aeschylus's Oresteia - which begins with wife murdering husband. Duhig is adjusting the mask of Western tragedy for Mexican religion, tying both to the most basic symbol of waste, calling the lot . The United States is only one version of American, and shitting, like cursing (see graffiti), is universal both in space and time.

The second poem is only 13 lines. In ancient rituals women often have greater symbolic power than men, just as shit tends (wouldn't you say?) to have greater symbolic power to pollute than piss. The dominant sound is the hard K of flickers, disinfected, contact, reflection, Tlaelquani (again), scum, skeletons, closets, lick, index, like, candle, culminating in skull, whose -ULL echoes Tlazolteotl and thumbnail, and re-appears in fell/Hell. Following the first poem's castrating ferocity, the dominant fear is looking. Simon Armitage once told me male urinal etiquette revolves around looking (or not). Your look (at manhood's index), flickers as (I gather) men's looks at each other flicker down and away. (Away also from eye-contact.) In this temple of reflection, your exposed self-image gets reflected from surfaces, and may drain away like a candle running down a feast-day skull; you reflect on your own manhood, on what you've got away with both physically and behaviourally. Its god, though, is female. The scum of the men's urinal rhymes with the thumb in her thumbnail. Men are under women's thumbnail, vulnerable to the half-moon of femaleness even in places forbidden to women. We end, again, with the underworld: not Furies but Hell (which, like electricity if you pee on live wires, creeps back up to you), plus a threat wrapped up in a joke: it won't be enough to piss on your shoes.

Within this exotic-cum-brutally basic subject matter, Duhig is saying that poems, like all acts of imagination, should be able to tackle anything. His poem is about ancient connections between language, symbol and bodily function, (Freud's classic article on peeing linked the fire-god Prometheus to bedwetting). Its divided format reflects the way society divides male and female symbolism. It says our bodies, basis of all symbolism, make us confront our deepest fears, our nastiness; that mythology attributes pollution mainly to women and sees men as eternally vulnerable to brutal female grudge. But that you also have, in the end, to laugh at the lot.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

`' is taken from Last Words edited by Don Paterson and Jo Shapcott (Picador)