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)

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice