The entrance first, and it is feathered.
Christina Dunhill’s debut pamphlet Blackbirds is currently winging its way around the country. It is a beautiful little thing, full of myth and magic, presented in a style that’s anything but airy-fairy. Her poems have been popping up in various UK magazines for years, notably The Rialto, so her name is already a familiar one.
This poet shifts the centre constantly. You’re never quite sure where you are with her. That sounds like poetry to make you sea-sick, but that would be quite the wrong impression. What I’m trying to describe is the sense of unpredictability. Oddly different aspects of life are approached from unexpected angles. She keeps you on your toes, like a hall of mirrors. My tropes are not in the least up to the job. You need to read her and see.
But there is also a death, one that has grieved me very much. When I first started publishing, it never occurred to me that this would be part of it—that one would develop emotional attachments to poets, not just as writers but as people, as members of an extended family. Many of them are what Ruth Pitter called “blood-relations of the mind”. The risk of all such attachment is loss.
The first HappenStance poet to die was Olive Dehn. She was marvellous, an absolutely unique poet, and I loved her, but she was in her nineties and I think she was ready to go. Cliff Ashby, who died more recently, had also done his time: it was a gradual dwindling and a graceful exit. He made a terrific old man.
But the latest loss is Tom Duddy, who was not so old—not old at all—and he was not expecting to die just now. He was diagnosed with cancer just before Christmas and had treatment that was intended to prolong his life. It didn’t work.
In his last months, he was working intensely on poetry and there is a body of work—some of it quite remarkable—enough to make another book. He writes as though he is dying, as though each moment contains the secret of life. We should all write like this—if we only could, if we only could.
Tom’s first collection, in 2006, was a HappenStance pamphlet—The Small Hours—I have run out of these, so alas no use trying to order one. That pamphlet came about because Tom’s poems were featured in a Magma showcase, and I was so struck with them that I wrote to him, via Magma, and asked whether he would like to send me poems with a view to pamphlet publication. This is the only time I have ever done this.
What was so striking about Tom’s poems? It is hard to explain. What he does is never in your face or splashy. He is an understater. But he can see things in life— that mysterious process we are a part of till we stop—that I can’t pick up any other way. He is irreplaceable.
He has some paragraphs worth reading about his poetic principles on his website, and you may notice that the information there is much greater than on his poet’s page in the HappenStance home site. He was not a man who easily spoke about himself and he found the web copy difficult to assemble: he felt he should do it to help find readers for his book. Tom’s default mode was reticence.
His first full collection was published by Arlen House, a small Irish imprint. The Hiding Place (2011) included many of the poems from the original pamphlet but also some new ones, poems with mysterious and evocative power, drawn from the most ordinary situations. (I reviewed the book on GoodReads here and Matthew Stewart discusses it here.)
In Duddy’s writing, ordinary situations are drenched in mystery, with himself, most secretive of persons, at the heart of all awareness. Here, for example, is ‘Garden Party’:
At some strange distance, the good children
are playing among the metal chairs
in the patio; laugh after laugh
goes up from a group that still loiters
by the dead barbecue; old old friends
look well pleased to assemble again
on awkward ground under the sycamore;
the evening sun leaves all impressions
at the edge of consciousness; and an air
of lateness shimmies in the trees.
I almost reach across the table
towards the woman opposite,
almost speak warmly to her,
almost give myself away for once.
The mystery is flagged by the word ‘strange’ in the first line, and then everything teeters. The group ‘still loiters’ but is about to go. The barbecue is ‘dead’. The ground is ‘awkward’. The light and the atmosphere is ‘at the edge of consciousness’ where anything might be true. That ‘air / of lateness’ suggests a time out of time, a time when something other might happen. Everything is ‘almost’ – the word he repeats three times. And in that moment when he almost gives himself away (but doesn’t), he gives himself away.
Tom Duddy is gone from the earth. He is alive in that poem and many others. He could, and can, see things I can’t see, which is why I find his poems indispensable. There will be another book, though not yet. Please, please look out for it, and in the meantime, read what is already in print.