Archive for September, 2016


September 30, 2016

2016-09-30dunn-douglas-by-roddy-simpsonI have always thought that poetry is about music. Douglas Dunn’s isn’t. It’s chatty. However, I may be not right here. There’s music in his poems too, but it’s of a different kind. It’s the music of the fact, of the detail. He gives readers a magnifying glass of his vision and makes them immediately love the beauty of this world or shudder at its doom. Or just both – love and shudder at the same time. He generalizes details, typifies them and combines them into unbelievably attractive jigsaw puzzles.

I stumbled into two of his poems while leafing through an anthology of English poetry last week, and all these days I have kept reading his poetry and admiring it.  To be exact, Douglas Dunn is a Scottish poet. Born in Inchinnan, Renfrewshire, in 1942, he later moved to Hull where he had Phillip Larkin for his mentor. Now Douglas Dunn is alive and kicking (in 2013 he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry), mentoring budding poets. Here’s the poem that led me into what I call the “world of double D.”


They will not leave me, the lives of other people,

I wear them near my eyes like spectacles.

Sullen magnates, hunched into chins and overcoats

In the back seats of their large cars;

Scholars, so conscientious, as if to escape

The things too real, the names too easily read,

Preferring language stuffed with difficulties;

And the children, furtive with their own parts;

The lonely glutton in the sunlit corner

Of an empty Chinese restaurant;

The coughing woman, leaning to a wall,

Her wedding-ring finger in her son’s cold hand,

In her back the invisible arch of death.

What makes them laugh, who lives with them?

I stooped to lace a shoe, and they all came back,

Mysterious people without names or faces,

Whose lives I guess about, whose language tease.

And not one of them has anything at all to do with me.


Incidentally, Douglas Dunn, as it must be with any man of letters, is very sensitive to language. He may have “teased” his countrymen about using it, (as he confesses), but I have never met anybody else who would sing a better hymn to the vernacular spoken by his people, or to the environs they live in:


Contemplating a map

Annals of the trilled R, gently stroked L,

Lamenting O of local literature,

Open, on this, their one-page book, a still

Land-language chattered in a river’s burr.

Small talk of herdsmen, rural argument –

These soft disputes drift over river –meadows,

A darg of conversations, a verbal scent –

Tut-tutted discourse, time of day, word-brose.

Names of places have been dictionaried in

Ground’s secret lexicon, its racial moan

Of etymology and cries of pain

That slit a summer wind and then were gone.

A mother calls her daughter from her door.

Her house, my stone illusion, hugs its hill.

From Eaglesham west to the rocky shore

Her cry is stretched across bog-asphodel.

The patronymic miles of grass and weddings,

Their festivals of gender, covenants,

Ploughed-up davochs – old names, inhabitants.

And on my map is neither wall or fence,

But men and women and their revenue,

As, watching them, I utter into silence

A granary of whispers rinsed in dew

Just as the heart of his much more famous compatriot was “in the Highlands”, Douglas Dunn’s heart is in Clydeside – with its “trilled R” and “gently stroked L”, tut-tutted talk of herdsmen all through the darg (day) of conversations. And all that in villages and at river banks whose almost incomprehensible names are DICTIONARIED (!) as a “racial moan of etymology.” I feel like repeating again and again these succinct expressions of love for one’s homeland.


In 1978 Dunn’s wife Leslie was diagnosed with cancer of the eye. All three years, until Leslie died in 1981, Douglas was dedicating poems of pain and love to her. Here’s one of them:


We went to Leeds for a second opinion.

After her name was called,

I waited among the apparently well

And those with bandaged eyes and dark spectacles.

A heavy mother shuffled with bad feet

And a stick, a pad over one eye,

Leaving her children warned in their seats.

The minutes went by like a winter.

They called me in. What moment worse

Than that young doctor trying to explain?

‘It’s large and growing.’ ‘What is?’

‘Malignancy.’ ‘ Why there? She’s an artist!’

He shrugged and said, ‘Nobody knows.’

He warned me it might spread. ‘Spread?’

My body ached to suffer like her twin

And touch the cure with lips and healing sesames.

No image, no straw to support me – nothing

To hear or see. No leaves rustling in sunlight.

Only the mind sliding against events

And the antiseptic whiff of destiny.

Professional anxiety –

His hand on my shoulder

Showing me to the door, a scent of soap,

Medical fingers, and his wedding ring.

from Elegies (Faber & Faber, 1985)

%d bloggers like this: