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The Kingdom of Water

Enda Wyley

Summer Rain, by Noel Duffy, Ward Wood Publishing, 84 pp, €9.99, ISBN: 978-1908742575

Noel Duffy’s third collection, Summer Rain, is structured into three different parts – each exhibiting a poetic range, an experimentation in form and theme which mark a departure from the more lyrical, autobiographical work of his previous volumes, In the Library of Lost Things (2011) and On Light and Carbon (2013).

These are new sequences from a poet eager to take chances in subject matter and to push forward the boundaries of his craft. At the same time these poems protect what has been a striking feature of Duffy’s work to date – a fascination with the sciences, stemming from his studies in experimental physics at Trinity College, Dublin.

In the light of this interest, it seems entirely fitting that Summer Rain begins with a section “Games of Chance & Reason”. Here, eight poems, dated 1895–1907, follow the final years of the brilliant Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. This is an unusual choice of subject for poetry – one better suited to a physics lecture or a scientific journal, you might think. And yet it is a measure of Duffy’s development as a poet that he has created a convincing verse drama infused with a dialogue that would work as well on radio as it does on the page.

In a compact preface, he explains the importance of Boltzmann’s theories. “Using a deceptively simple starting point, he posited that atoms existed and if we measure their behavior in vast numbers using statistical methods, all the laws of classical thermodynamics could be fully understood.” Boltzmann also believed that pockets of order existed within disorder. Duffy explains how this “gave a working foundation for how the complexity of life itself (an ordered state) could arise without defying the fundamental law of entropy as he had proposed it”.

These are challenging ideas and ones which today have defined Boltzmann as one of the most gifted physicists of the nineteenth century. But in his own lifetime he encountered much opposition to his ideas, most especially from the positivists – scientists who only believed what evidence could actually prove. Chief amongst these was the forceful proponent of positivist philosophy Ernst Mach.

It is out of the conflict between Boltzmann and Mach that Duffy develops an intriguing poetic argument. Ideas and counter-ideas battle for the truth.

Ludwig stands in the small wood-panelled
lecture room, a dozen or so students facing him
in rows. ‘I ask you to place your faith in me,
for there are those who say I am a charlatan
or a fool. And some who say I am both!

Of course, he was neither a charlatan or a fool. And ultimately, it is his genius that Duffy celebrates, in poems which expose the thrill of Boltzmann’s discoveries, the excitement of his ideas – as well as the disillusionment and ultimate tragedy of his story.

Now all seems lost; lost to him in dispute
and the over-labour of duties. He knows
this cannot go on, that he falters more
with every step he tries to take, each ending,
it seems, in failure and regret.’

“Into the Recesses”, the second section of Summer Rain, moves us into a new imaginative zone, with an epigraph from Wordsworth as our guide. “A lake carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable.”

Sixteen observational nature poems follow, using twenty-first century knowledge as a means to reimagine pantheism. The poems succeed because of their powerful attention to detail and their allegiance to Duffy’s interest in physics.

In “Surface Tension” carefully chosen words like “membrane” and “meniscus” are subtly scientific, helping this small poem to lodge itself memorably in the reader’s imagination.

Water too has a skin,
that membrane that separates
its world from our own, the meniscus
that trembles in the light
late evening breeze, not breaking it
but forming small rivulets
upon its surface, a flickering
of light playing on the eye
separating our world from theirs;
the kingdom of water;
the kingdom of air.

Water flows purposefully throughout the poems in this section. In “Storm over Skiddaw” sheep huddle together while “rain falls down / heavily about them”. A waterfall is wonderfully described as a “cascade of quicksilver/ force”, finally slowing down to a “cantering measure” in the poem “Tyneware Waterfall”, while in “Molecules in Motion”, waters are “flowing downriver towards the lake / and the human scale of the waiting landscape”. These are poems which skilfully celebrate the cycle of water in a diversity of natural settings. They are carefully honed, complement each other and make for an arresting second part of an intriguing collection.

Duffy concludes his third collection with a series of ten intimate monologues, set in contemporary Dublin – although the city is secondary to the voices of each speaker, all specifically named and all very different in their concerns and experiences. Broken marriages, drugs, emotional problems, disappointments are the fabric of these poems as we are introduced to the troubled and disaffected of the poet’s making. And yet there is an overriding humanity flowing like the rain through the days of each speaker, which offers some consolation for the future.

Muriel, though devastated by her loss of faith, tightens her coat about her, walks out onto the streets, hoping the rain will wash away her sin “that I may believe in Him again / Jesus who no longer lives with me / Pray for me …”. Philip’s job is to clean dead bodies and yet he ponders how “there is a tenderness, in the end, in this work I do”. “Caroline”, the final poem of the collection, encapsulates the humane, enquiring voice which flows as consistently as water throughout the three sequences of Summer Rain – a collection, which for all its exactness of structure, should ultimately be enjoyed for its great empathy and craft.

I pick another canvas
from the pile stacked along
the studio wall, blank and waiting
for a truer mood. I will paint
the smell of rain instead and start
with earthen brown and red.

1/1/2017

Enda Wyley is a poet and children’s author. She has published five collections of poetry with Dedalus Press – most recently Borrowed Space, New and Selected Poems (2014). She was the recipient of The Vincent Buckley Prize for Poetry and the Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship for Poetry (2014). She is a member of Aosdána.

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