By Carol Ann Duffy



By Nick Laird

Faber £14.99


By Ailbhe Darcy

Bloodaxe £9.95

Review by Hayden Murphy

Carol Ann Duffy celebrates anger in the pivotal section of this magnificent collection which, somewhat reductively, is promoted as marking the end of her ten-year tenure as Poet Laureate (actually she leaves next May). These are not occasional poems but, collectively, a crafted selection of substantial statements by a writer at the height of her powers. Yet the rage at loss, political and personal, is softened when she speaks of her now adult daughter, Ella: “the house pines when you leave...I knew mothering, but not this other thing/which hefts my heart each day.”

Scottish born Duffy’s parents, May and Frank, also tug the lines at the heart’s command. When he “ships out” the poet recalls “The room relaxes/so we are fatherless, /husbandless, and this is my mother’s house”. In inimitable fashion she records their final re-union “On the beach at Roundstone/where my parents’ ashes/had separately embarked/ I walked out of love.”

The Irish poet John Montague when accepting the post as first Professor of Irish Poetry wryly remarked “The English (sic) Laureate slays Dragons while my job is to embrace Mythologies”. Duffy chooses in this book to slay myth making dragons specifically the “Mandrake Mymmerkin” in the White House .In Swearing-In you can choose between “thatch-fraud, rug-rogue” or maybe “News-maggot, lie-monger”. I settle for “bigot-merchant, shite louse”.

This is an inherited venom. In the poem Britannia she recalls Frank’s response to the 1966 tragedy in Aberfan and associates it with the aftermath of the Grenfell fire. “My father shouted/the Coal Board were criminals, murderers;/raged again when they looted the Fund./I should not connect the two, but I do.”

At that I pause to return to the opening poem, Clerk of Hearts. Elsewhere the poet has admitted failure to “burgle silence”. Now she wearily but confidently writes “My dealings with life have been so long ago, /I imagine I resemble shadow or watermark./I am unanswered prayer, like poetry. Dread.”

Central to Nick Laird’s apparently amiable new poetry volume, his forth, family phases are couched in family phrases: “I would like you to take a few seconds/to write me out one beautiful sentence”. But even that poem, Incantation, comes loaded with the writer’s native wistful ambiguity. It concludes “Held up at the gate I sit down and open// Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt”. For despite the international locations and cosmopolitan themes of many of the poems Laird is Irish and shares to good effect his fellow Ulsterman W.R. Rodger’s “spiky consonants of speech”. As the younger poet remarks “meaning has, historically/ had very hard edges.”

Like Duffy he addresses contemporary matters. The continuing tension in Ireland, race and refugee issue in the USA, fire death and betrayal in London post Grenfell. However in the aftertaste of re-reading those poems I return to, and am grateful for, the evocative moments with his family. His son Harvey “fists clenched, eyes shut, like this is bliss”. A moment with his wife and daughter: “A snowflake catches/on her mother’s lashes when Katherine’s looking upwards//and we hold out our hands until they are white”.

Ailbhe Darcy’s second collection might well have been entitled “Instamatic”. There is a photographic immediacy about the poems in the early section that become captured images later in her homage to the Danish writer Inger Christensen’s 1981 alphabet, translated into English by Susannah Nied in 2000.

An earlier poem, Ansel Adams’ Aspens, celebrates the American artist/photographer Ansel Adam “helpless in his Biltrite pram” for whom “the sky must seem a matter of fact. It’s the mind/ beneath he wants to grasp, stowed in its smart black// enclosure.”

Christensen gave us a bleak post Hiroshima “darkening thatch of glossery”. Darcy replaces the Dane’s melancholy on what must “exist” with a pragmatic alternative use of the word “insist”. It is a beautifully conceived conceit, a creation which, with crafted stealth, entrances the reader into a satisfying state of mysterious doubt. In, Angelus, Darcy had, with typical insistence, declared “In some forgotten future each displaced caress/must creep home to make its peace with us”. Amen to that.