Review of The Days of Surprise by Paul Durcan

Wednesday 25 February 2015

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The Days of Surprise

Paul Durcan
(Harvill Secker, 2014); hbk, £12

There is a feeling that had Seamus Heaney entered any Dublin pub everyone would have known him, whereas Ted Hughes would have passed unnoticed in a London bar. Paul Durcan sits very near Heaney’s right hand in Irish affections, which may come as some surprise on this side of the water. Certainly, my first reading of this, his most recent of twenty plus poetry collections, did not instantly endear me to his work. I was struck by a clutter of upper case letters, a seeming punctuation surfeit and especially by the extraordinary quantity of exclamation marks.

However, that only points out my own inexperience. Durcan has received far too many awards to be dismissed on a cursory reading. He was Ireland Professor of Poetry from 2004 to 2007 and the Irish know more than a little about verse. Colm Tóibín cited an earlier collection as his Guardian Book of the Year and he has sung with Van the Man. Durcan merits investigation.

Despite a difficult relationship with his barrister father (which he examines here in “The Poet and the Judge”), Durcan took the perhaps expected path, reading law. His studies were interrupted when his family had him forcibly committed to a mental hospital. This descendant of Maud Gonne and John MacBryde endured treatments of E.C.T. and heavy sedation. Against this backdrop, his quirky, erudite poetry already begins to become more understandable.

Through his remarkable weekly radio broadcasts and recordings, Durcan’s voice is well-known to Irish listeners. Hearing his soft, surprising voice also lifts his poetry from the page. These radio programmes occupy quite a different space in Irish life from the niche that UK poetry broadcasts tend to fill; arguably, the Irish listener is already well-primed to read Durcan.

The Days of Surprise seems to work almost as a journal, opening with the significant “57 Dartmouth Square” which serves both an introduction to the poet and a haunting self-examination:

Sometimes I was called Paul
But mostly I was not a who or a what
But a where.

The next ten poems develop that early autobiographical theme. Knowing something of his life, his verse might be expected to be painfully confessional, but whilst there are dark revelations, and punch-in-the-gut sensations, Durcan has a delightfully off the wall touch, laced with surprising humour and hope. He writes in a racy, often gossipy and conspiratorial voice, witty with word play. He has a way with bold statements, pithy lists, and well-placed repetition and rhyme.

A lively observer of daily life, he knits together the famous, the infamous with the ordinary with a levelling, irrepressible charm.  Like many Irish poets, he looks closely at Roman Catholicism, but his is a balanced observation, unflinching yet far from polemical. In a series which includes the titular poem, covering the present pope’s election, he notes –

I will pray not only for a black pope
But for a black Archbishop of Dublin.
We Irish also have had enough
Of the hegemony of the white Irishman.
What is more, I will pray like a madman
For a black woman Archbishop of Dublin.
I am dust, and unto dust I shall return.

Alleluias doubtless sounded in the streets of Swords. His greeting to the incoming Argentinean after “The German Shepherd” warms, and he is stiletto-sharply brilliant in his observation of a mean Benedictine –

His urinal-stall mouth, his stick it in your face mask
His eyebrows crawling all over you,
His spilling-over jowls cowled.

This deceptively light touch lets him slip in some wonderful satire on other aspects of being Irish; consider his take on the now toothless Government –  not least in “1916, Not to be Commemorated” and he keens on the ailing Celtic tiger, prowling the ghost estates.

Undoubtedly, Durcan deserves a greater UK readership. Radio Scotland might do well to broadcast his Addresses to the Nation, in order that we can be truly ready to enjoy him.

Beth McDonough


Paul Durcan will appear at StAnza 2015 on 6th March.