The fifth in this series.
I thought I was beginning to know what to expect from this anthology – fractured half-sentences, flickers from memory, snatches of meaning, ambiguity and blur, a quiet minimalism. And then Andrew Duncan comes along.
Duncan’s narrators are oracular. They delve into ancient history and mythology, they speak in an elevated language, full of latinates, with a voice that sounds as if it’s learned its lessons from the King James Bible, Rilke, and ancient Greek goddesses.
When it works, his writing can be extraordinary. From Wind and Wear in Aix-en-Provence:
Is the ruins of time; and time is feasting on us.
…A wind pours steadily from the Alps and
Is part of their being; the mountain
With its scarf of air
Is contoured by abrasion. The
Universe is edible; the universe eats
Living stone to dessert on airy men.
That poem was my favourite. That contrast between ongoing creation/change/pattern and erosion, and how each feeds off the other is the theme of the poem. A moth settles behind raspberries, and feeds from them, but the pierced fruits are “half lost/ Half-transformed into the robber, wings draggled,/ Sleeping in black veils under the red riches.”
Human beings have a “flickering solidity” between the “absolute transience of light” and the “sonority of massive stones”. And then the narrator gazes upwards:
The sun’s edge is not up there,
But deep in the earth, where the living surface ends;
I stretch my edge
Out on visible radiance to where the fruits are.
I get close the universe by eating it.
Duncan’s poems in this anthology often explore their harsh landscapes, and in doing so, make their human connections. At Cumae begins:
Whatever I know is carried away on the breeze
Blowing from the heart of the rock, where the wells
Of light are cut into the cold hill.
Sibyl of a hundred voices, what is my fate?
And in Almond Wind: formal lament for Osip Mandelstam, Duncan tells how the death of Orpheus led to a dying of nature. He compares this to Mandelstam, whose word:
In that stellar black;
A rhythm crossed the inner span of darkness.
Matter shook itself like dust on a cymbal,
Mountains froze along the globe’s chords,
And a green wind raised trees from clay and light.
Then rocks and trees moved at man’s command,
And all sang to greet the rising sun.
But after his death, the “snow cuts the tongues of rivers”.
Literacy has Carthage, “the bringer of letters to the Western savages,” at its centre, and the poem, in my understanding, is political, showing how literacy is a form of power that can be used to enslave. Even the poorest free person is better off than the person signed (i.e. written) over into slavery:
The peasant scraping in the mud
Pauses in the heat of noon.
The serfs entered in the Temple Rolls
Know no rest.
The modern-day excavators find tablets, analyse them, and process them. But Andrew Duncan has little sympathy for their efforts:
We squat for years and scrutinize the tablets,
Our gaze trapped in the interstices of the plates.
Serfs of fat and rote memories
Oppressors of all that would deploy in passion.
At times, I found the poetry a bit purple, overblown, which was OK as long as Duncan was trying to say something in the process, but not when it had all been said in two lines and Duncan felt obliged to stretch it out for twenty. It could get a bit dense, humourless and turgid. Now and again, I got bored. The oracular tone came preciously close to parody on occasions as well.
On the other hand, it’s very hard to write like this and keep it up. I can’t read Rilke’s Duino Elegies, for example, and not feel astonished at how Rilke rarely puts a foot wrong, even in the most complex sections. Andrew Duncan manages to write quite brilliantly through much of the poetry on display here. He manages to say something more in them than the bland and obvious, and he is entirely unfashionable with his elevated, oracular diction when mainstream UK poetry circles seem obsessed with “natural-speak” (an obsession that they may now be outgrowing). That refusal to court populist style deserves a commendation in itself.
Roy Fisher is next.