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An Eye for the Gewgaws

Harry Clifton

Collected Poems, by Dennis O’Driscoll, Carcanet, 541 pp, £19.99, ISBN 978-1784105112

There is a longer and shorter commentary to be written on the poems of the late Dennis O’Driscoll, who passed away five years ago and whose work now appears in collected form. The shorter version tells us that O’Driscoll, who grew up in Tipperary and moved to Dublin in 1970, quickly assimilated the mode and manner of translated Eastern European poetry at the time and applied it to the domestic and professional realities of the Ireland he lived and worked in as a civil servant, initially in Births, Marriages and Deaths, latterly in Customs and Excise, for nearly forty years. As his working life suggests, he was never part of the ethos of alienation, and made a point, as his popular readings and the Betjemanesque titles of his books, from Hidden Extras to Weather Permitting, suggest, of not condescending to the non-literary reader. Besides its wit and urbanity, his work is characterised by an eye for the gewgaws, gizmos and gimmicks of aspirational Ireland equalled only by the eye of DH Lawrence for birds, beasts and flowers. A Charles Lamb to his literary elders, a Randall Jarrell to his contemporaries, he was, leaving aside the question of his place in the Irish poetry of his generation, its leading man of letters.

The longer version is more complex, since it has to engage not simply with charm or technique but with a vision of life. That vision is introduced as early as the first page, in a poem called “Kist” in which the poet forms part of a funeral cortege for one of his parents:

And, as I pace behind the hearse,
My own face in its glass
Takes on the wrinkled grain
Of coffin wood.

Readers of the collected poems would do well to attend carefully to these lines, in which death, ingrained at whatever level in the poet, sounds its knell through the next five hundred pages. Death not as absence or loss but as office routine, the corporate sterility of board-rooms, the aisles of supermarkets, the human hamster on the wheel being ground down, the process of decomposition dwelt upon with horror and fascination, in its aspect of putrescence, mental collapse. As if, beneath the civilised man lurked a death-obsessive darker even than Philip Larkin, nearer in vision to the German decadent Gottfried Benn, whose jazz age dance of death is echoed in O’Driscoll’s “Saturday Night Fever”:

Playing tonight at the X-Ray-Ted Club,
The Chemotherapies, drugged to the gills,
The lead singer’s pate modishly bald.
And who will your partner be?
Alzheimer, the absent-minded type,
With the retro gear, everything a perfect mismatch?

On the surface however – and social surface O’Driscoll excels at – the narrative in the collected poems is an entirely conventional Irish one from the end of the last century. Tipperary and the early death of parents gives way to Dublin office work, punctuated by the dullness of post-religious Sundays in “Flatland”:

Take-away foods, small late-night stores,
Record-dealers, posters for Folk Mass.
Coke and fried chicken make an ideal meal here,
Unpacked in a bedsit, knocked back near a one-bar fire.

Upward mobility brings with it the g-plan angst of “Middle-Class Blues”, respectability gnawed at by impermanence:

He had everything.
A beautiful young wife.
A comfortable home.
A secure job.

Then one day.

Might-have-beens, the possibility of a child or life elsewhere recede into the half-wistful half-complacency of “An Uruguayan Bagatelle”:

It is like the pattern of a life, all care
Blanked out on holiday, the pleasures stressed,
Long plain miles of tedium suppressed.

Work, promotion, business travel, the sterility of board-rooms and the fatigue of late-night flights, take over and threaten to become reality itself as the human being is reduced to the business automaton in “The Bottom Line”, a unit in a deterministic universe, no more than the sum total of his own clichés:

Before the car ascends the parking ramp
At nine, I drop my working wife off
With a ritual, perfunctory peck.
Tuna salad shared for lunch, a quick
Check on appointments – we touch base
If schedules permit, save news of
Office manoeuvres for our pillow talk …
I glimpse from here the nesting pigeon,
Awkward, restless, treading on shells,
Then load the spreadsheet’s spurt
Of ballpark figures, analysing trends.

It is hard however to empathise with this run-down automaton subject only to sociological laws. What started in the Collected Poems as first-person experience, or an address to one other person, becomes an “analysis of trends” where “I” becomes “We”, people become types, and the tang of the particular loses its taste in the generic, as we enter the era of “The Celtic Tiger”:

Tonight the babe on short-term
Contract from the German parent
Will partner you at the sponsors’ concert.
Time, now, however, for the lunch-break
Orders to be texted. Make yours hummus
On black olive bread. An Evian.

None of which prevents this morality tale from reaching its eventual, if predictable outcome in the purchase of a state of the art house overlooking – irony of ironies – a graveyard. Fulfilment meets death; careerism, consumerism meet the cadaverous. Not surprisingly, the final two collections included here, Dear Life and the posthumous Update are full of bitter reappraisal, rage against life itself.

Muchas gracias, parents.
You were far too kind.
Where would I be without you?
You shouldn’t have.

The decomposing corpses out the back are “those who discover an aptitude for death / they never had for life” and it is hard, confronted with such aptitude for the matter as O’Driscoll has, not to remember Mrs Hardy’s remark about her husband indoors, writing “another pessimistic poem and enjoying himself immensely”. But any reader, delving for artistic sanity and meeting a bedrock of disturbance, will have to choose between O’Driscoll the friend of suffering humanity and O’Driscoll the death-voluptuary, wallowing in the ghoulish, the macabre. It is doubtful that suffering humanity will be much comforted by flesh-hating exactitudes, fist-shakings at “God” (for presiding over a terrible world) or the above-mentioned parents (for bringing one into that world in the first place), all of which belong in his last book, Dear Life, not to tragedy, but to delayed adolescence.

Randall Jarrell, that man of letters already mentioned above in connection with Dennis O’Driscoll, once wrote that the best a poet could hope for after a lifetime of standing out in the rain was to be struck half-a dozen times by lightning. O’Driscoll’s half-dozen, scattered throughout these five hundred pages, seem the ones that escape the death-obsession and the social determinism to stand in a space of their own. Poems like “Day and Night”, a rare glimpse of the erotic:

Wrapped in a sheer white negligee
You are a fog-bound landscape
Familiar but seen in a new light
Transformed by seamless mist
Tantalising, trimmed with tufts of cloud
I know that after the fog lifts
The climate will turn sultry
I can detect a sun-like breast
Already radiating through the chiffon dawn

Or a small meditation like “Water”, or the contemplation in “Red Admiral” near the end of this volume, of a resting butterfly that could stand for the passage through risk – including literary risk – and death into fertility and renewal.

Do not disturb. Tread lightly on its
Dreams of buddleia. Home is the sailor.
Home and dry. A Red Sea admiral
Returned from voyaging, having
Breasted the petalled foam, ridden
The crest of heather waves, triumphed
|Over predatory enemies, the piratical
Rivalry of nectar-guzzling honey bees.

“Tragedy,” as DH Lawrence wrote, “should be a great kick at misery.” By that standard, the decadence and morbidity of the age so accurately described, at times embodied in these pages, is lifted beyond itself in a few, but not too few, untypical poems. That in itself is enough.


Harry Clifton’s The Holding Centre:Selected Poems 1974-2004 and Portobello Sonnets are published by Wake Forest and Bloodaxe Books. He was Ireland Professor of Poetry 2010-2013.