Poetry review: Deep thoughts of a lonely man at Christmas

Paul Durcan

Purcell Room, London

, fiftysomething certified poet from County Mayo, sits to one side of the lectern in a summery, Chekhovian wickerwork chair, listening to a brisk summary of all he has been and done: the 14 books of poems; the long-time residence in Dublin; that ability of his - or so someone once said - to charm the very birds from the trees.

His fist is pressed hard into his forehead in a Rodinesque thinker's and let-this-cup-pass-from-me pose, the two impulses deftly combined in one striking visual effect; the sleeves of his shirt, green as any nostalgia- marinaded image of the Emerald Isle herself, are rolled up high in preparation for the task ahead: a hard hour-and-a-bit's reading from Christmas Day, his minor, book-length epic of festive gloom and humorous despondency about a lonely man adrift in Dublin at Christmas. His name is Durcan - the very same, perhaps? - and he fetches up at the apartment of a friend to share his food and the colourful splendour of his drifting, party-mood- inducing balloons.

Durcan is a poet who brings an atmosphere of dramatic intensity along with him whenever he reads, an aura of ferociously pent concentration. The words seem to be hauled up from a deep well of silence. Much of the time he speaks in a conspiratorial half-whisper, the voice heavy with melancholia. His head lolls as if too heavy to support. He does nothing but read his poems - there are no introductions, no small, ingratiating acts of elucidation; no humorous asides; no attempt to put the audience at its ease.

The consequence of this is that the audience never is at its ease. It is always waiting for the sudden shock of a change of pitch, that unexpected revving and racing of the voice...

The only unscripted words of the night are his first ones, muttered before he begins to read the poem. "In memory of Lady Di," he says, "the night of the Princess."

These enigmatic words replace the poem's printed epigraph from Sophocles. Durcan's sweetly desolate humour, his crazed arias of bleak and relentless self-questioning, often make him sound like a man alone in the confessional, playing the parts of both priest and penitent, forever dashing from one side of the box to the other to eavesdrop on his own answers: "Are you a practising Catholic? Yes - I practise and practise and practise, and, when I get the chance, I play."

The changes in the moods of the voice are subtle, but those of the face are not. They are the exaggerated poses of the silent film: an intense screwing up of eyes; a curious snarl, accompanied by a squeezing and drawing in of lips; a violent shaking of the head, as if he would dearly like to rid himself of that swarm of oddities in the bottom drawer of his mind: "I am a red balloon high up in my own white ceiling..."

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