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PAUL DURCAN: THE REVEALING ART OF CONCEALMENT

Alan Dent

 

 

Amongst the blurb on the cover of Durcan's 1985 collection The Berlin Wall Cafe, is this unattributed remark:

     “…poems about the break-up of a marriage so intense they would hurt if they weren't also possessed of the healing gifts of truthfulness and humour."

Why should truthfulness be considered a bulwark against hurt? I would have thought the opposite. As for the humour, what kind of humour is it that can be used to laugh off the pain of divorce? What kind of mind is it that wants to find a way of laughing at, or laughing off, the pain of divorce? Isn't there a species of nervous laughing-off characteristic of inner emptiness and a desperate need to fill it? What the anonymous writer of this type has perceived is Durcan's difficulty in addressing himself or the world beyond himself except through self-deprecation, itself a defence against the very emptiness it tries to conceal. Durcan's characteristic stance is the persistent self-deprecation of the man with an over-blown idea of himself. He is constantly undermining himself because, on the one hand, he finds it hard to take anything truly seriously or to find meaning in the world beyond himself, and on the other hand, to conceal both from himself and the reader his essential self-absorption.

Superficially, Durcan's technique is amusing, like the patter of the hopeless bar-room soak who disarms everyone with his self-deprecatory charm. His popularity is easy. He doesn't task his readers, he charms them, disarms them, flatters them, cajoles them so that they don't notice that he is insulting them by refusing to acknowledge the existence of any reality but himself. His poems appear to be revelations: this is how divorce was for me. But they conceal. Their very form, open and clear, is a means of concealment. It is the language of a man who wishes to control. To be more experimental might risk dangerous suggestions and allusions . The prose-like style is a way of keeping in check those deeper feelings which might subvert the cheap humour. The tragedy at the heart of Durcan's work is that it cannot accept tragedy. If Durcan were to write a poem about Hiroshima it would have to be humorously self-deprecatory, it would have to be about Paul Durcan. Finally, Paul Durcan is the subject of almost every poem he has written.

In this, Durcan's poetry is typical. It expresses intelligently the self-absorption of the age. In The Day My Wife Purchased Herself A Handgun, for example Durcan is exploring the murderous war into which modern marriage has descended. As the battle of each against all permeates the most intimate relationships, as the barriers between public and private break down, so personal life collapses as people no longer find an oasis of love and kindness in the harsh society of go-getting and image-making. It is important not to be mistaken about the subject-matter of this poem. Its jokey surface cannot hide that it is about the descent of a would-be loving relationship into violent hatred. Why then does Durcan make a joke of it? Somehow, the resources to face its seriousness are missing. Here is a selfhood withdrawn into a corner where every tragedy can be treated as a narcissistic joke. The Joke does not redeem the tragedy. It trivializes it. It does not accept tragedy, it denies it. it proposes a defensive relation to the world in which adolescent jokiness keeps at bay those events and forces which threaten to awaken feelings so intense they will swamp a diminished sense of selfhood.

There is a telling line in this poem:
“But when I looked in the mirror I was not there."

Narcissuss, the mirror gazer. He sees himself but does not know it is himself he sees. He makes no distinction between himself and the world and so drowns in the illusion of symbiosis. This is Durcan. He looks in the mirror to see himself but he can't. He can't see himself because he can see only himself. The physical image may be reproduced by the laws of physics, but the inner self does not exist because it refuses boundaries. As his relationship with his wife plummets and the hand gun lies around in the bedroom with her underwear (sex, love and murder blending into one another) he turns to the mirror to find reassurance. But there is nothing there. The suggestion that his marriage is failing because of his emotional inadequacy is clear and is picked up in other poems where morbid self-accusation masks a refusal to fight through to greater maturity.

"If it's one thing a wife must not do, it's to grow up."

In this, the penultimate line, Durcan expresses his desire for a wife who is a little girl, or more accurately from a psychological point of view, a substitute mother. What she must not become is other, She must not stand as a separate individual for in so doing she reminds Durcan of his hopeless dependence. The poem ends with a piece of typical self-deprecation: an attack on the poet's own masculinity. This sycophantic, craven and essentially inauthentic capitulation before ideological feminism, according to which men are all worthless, inadequate and never the equals of women, recurs in Durcan's work. Ostensibly it is the defence of women against the depredations of insensitive, importunate, spoilt-child men. In fact it is self-hatred trying to pass itself off as principle.

Self-hatred plays a significant role in Durcan's poetry, especially in the poems which deal with the breakdown of personal relations. Exaggerated self-accusation, beneath which surges, of course, a fantasy of omnipotence and perfection is a substitute for an attempt to understand what forces might have made these relationships fail, an effort to relate the tragedies of his personal life to the wider tragedy of our cultural malaise. Over and over these poems say: of course I'm to blame, I'm inadequate, I can't be relied upon, you are a much better person than me, I could never rise to your level, I'm a wretched, hopeless case, I have "swastika eyes" a "gestapo voice", I'm really a psychopath. And beneath all this is the unheard voice which claims for itself the right not to grow up, not to be reliable, to be able to behave selfishly and insensitively. Durcan's persistent self-accusation is really a wallowing in self-regarding self-pity.

In On Falling In Love With A Salesman in a Shoeshop, Durcan begins with a depiction of his reduced way of life: a room with no windows, three inches of water on the kitchen floor (this from a highly successful poet). He goes out to buy shoes and in his diminished condition falls for the first person to show any interest in him (this from a poet published and read all over the world). But the poem ends, hardly unexpectedly:

if the shoe salesman were to marry me,
I suppose that he would also probably leave me.

Naturally. Anyone would leave Durcan for his demands are unreasonable. The attention of the entire world couldn't satisfy such raging egotism. Nor is this, as some supporters of Durcan would claim, clever ironisation. Durcan is not, like Flaubert in Madame Bovary or Joe Orton in Loot, rising above what he depicts and valorising its opposite through irony. The poem refuses to create sufficient distance for that, (both Flaubert and Orton insisted on the necessity of distance for successful ironization, the former in his doctrine of impassibilite the latter in his recognition that it was the objectivity which he achieved while in prison which allowed his writing to work). Durcan refuses this distantiation. His characteristic posture is wallowing. Were he ironizing the postures he depicts, spiking their immaturity and inwardness, there would need to be, built into the poem, a sharper sense of rejection. No intelligent reader could imagine Flaubert on the side of Homais or Orton defending Fay McMahon. Search all you like for the discrepancy between Durcan's poetic persona and the organizing consciousness behind the poems but you won't find it. Ironization is one thing, self-deprecation another and it is the latter at which Durcan is adept. It is a clever and charming means of drawing attention to himself and it is present throughout his work.

Charm is Durcan's strategy. He wants to seduce his readers. This explains, at least partly, his extraordinary popularity at readings. Poetry readings are at their best when people are listening to work they know well. Often though, people come along with only a passing familiarity with the writer they are going to hear. The poem of immediate effect works well on such audiences. They like to be entertained, charmed. It is no accident that poetry has been assimilated, by some, to stand-up comedy or pop music. At readings, a vexing or difficult poetry tends not to go down well.

Nevertheless, Durcan tries to deal with tragic subject-matter. He has written, of course, about terror in Northern Ireland. Yet he virtually never ceases to write about himself nor to try to charm his readers. His poem about the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, for example, contains, in thirty-eight lines, six uses of the first person pronoun. A reference to himself in every half-dozen lines, on average. It is a poem more about Durcan's rage than Saro-Wiwa's death or life so that the latter never comas into focus as an individual apart from, and important apart from, his place in Durcan's emotional and intellectual landscape. The poem can't overcome either Durcan's characteristic defensive jokiness: the joke of the poem in its entirety is the impotence of his arrival in protest at the Nigerian Embassy. This impotence is identical to that discovered in so many of his poems - his emotional blundering, his incompetence in love - here it becomes his incompetence in rage and protest but its function is to draw attention to himself and his own emotional condition, rather than to stress the tragedy and horror of the death of Saro-Wiwa. Similarly, in The Bloomsday Murders, 16th June 1997, Durcan appears at the centre of the poem and though he successfully spikes hypocrisy over the deaths, the fact that he can't leave himself out, that everything he writes of must be personalised, betrays a sense that he can't genuinely appreciate the importance of anything beyond his own appreciation, that he has, in short, a diminished sense of objectivity.

This might be defended on the grounds that it's a common technique of literature. The point, however, is emotional tone. In Durcan it is usually regressive. In the poems which tell of personal relationships this is obvious. How is it, for example, in “Windfall” 8 Parnell Hill Cork, the celebration of domesticity anticipates the inevitable:

But then with good reason
I was put out of my home?

For Durcan, the ordinary unhappiness of which Freud speaks as the alternative to crippling emotional conflict, will not do. He prefers to cling to the conflict, so failure of loving, easy-going domesticity are unavoidable. Notice that he readily admits he was expelled "with good reason". Here is the refusal to strive to be worthy which speaks of an underlying conviction of unworthiness. Yet this is not an honest appraisal of his shortcomings, it is a self-serving posture. It is a manipulation. The cry of "How unworthy I am!" demands the response "Of course you aren't!" The assertion that I am nothing conceals the desire to be everything. Thus, in his acts of revelation, Durcan conceals.

Durcan has written several poems which call attention to his association with power and fame, with people who are, by implication, more gifted or feted than himself. Even in the poems which are encomiums to Kavanagh there is an uncomfortable undercurrent of name-dropping and greatness by association which suggests a compensatory need for a grandiose conception of self. In The Mary Robinson Years he portrays himself as a reduced beggar for a morsel of the great woman's attention. He cannot catch her eye across the dinner table at a swanky banquet in Copacabana. She is a huge figure and he small. When finally she speaks to him it is to ask about his black eye, which he tries to pass off as a birthmark. She, that is, is respectable, worthy, great. He is a man with a black eye, diminished, unworthy, as ever. It is hard not to feel in this poem a pathetic plea for acceptance as it is hard not to see Robinson as a mother figure, a source of the unending love and praise for which the poet longs. Even worse though is his poem about the death of Diana Spencer. This is sycophancy trying to pass itself off as compassion. The death of a young mother is appalling, in any circumstances, but what died in the car in Paris was not only a real person but an icon. It was the loss of the icon which evoked so much factitious grief. The same people who wept over her death were those who had bought newspapers in the hope of pictures which flouted her privacy and in so doing denied her the respect every real person deserves. Icons aren't respected. They are worshipped, adored, bowed down to and vilified when they disappoint, as they are bound to.

The Night of the Princess is a poor poem. It begins with two stanzas in which a woman speaks of domestic experience. Her husband slamming the door and going off to "cringe on his mistress's breast" is, presumably, supposed to remind us of Diana Spencer’s failed and mortifying marriage. But these stanzas connect weekly with what follows. Spencer is evoked in her teenage manifestation as a modest nanny, a "skivvy". Skivvy she may have been, but she was a rich, aristocratic skivvy. Durcan's assimilation of her to ordinariness participates in the collective fantasy. She was rich and indulgent. What she might spend on clothes in a week would have kept most families for a year. When Durcan goes on to write of her being:

In the arms of her Pharaoh
In the back seat of his car
After dinner at the Ritz

he simultaneously elides ordinariness as he slips into luxury, and confirms the infantile view of her as a fairy-tale figure onto whom people can project their grandiose fantasies of wealth, luxury, fame and a soppy, sanitized conception of happiness. The poem ends weakly in whimpering word-play. Its use of the familiar first name of Al Fayed suggests that he like her was a figure with whom we could identify, as if the antics of a spoilt playboy are worthy of serious attention.

The immaturity that is the impulse behind this poem finds its formal expression throughout Durcan's work in its inchoate quality. His poems are all incipient. They bring to mind Wordsworth's famous remark about the "degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation." Durcan's poems aren't worked through and over to full realization. They stop short for the sake of spontaneity. To read a large number of his poems one after another is to become uncomfortable with their glib exhibitionism. They remind you of those people whose excessive presence speaks of their underlying absence. Durcan's is a borderline poetry. It is realized sufficiently to reach the reader in the work rather than through it, but only just. Time after time their is an arrestation which prevents the poems touching deeper sources of feeling. It is a kind of poetic teasing which evokes but then disappoints the promise of fulfilment. What is principally on offer is titillation and this because in his constant revelation of himself Durcan is always hiding. He demands to be noticed because of that underlying fear of looking in the mirror and seeing nothing. In his pursuit of attention and spontaneity he has made himself the poet of surfaces. In this he is thoroughly in keeping with his time. Always an inadequate stance for poetry.