Dennis O'Driscoll 1954-2012
Yesterday I heard of the death of a good friend, the Irish poet, Dennis O'Driscoll. I will write more about him but here is the review I wrote for The Guardian of his New and Selected Poems, 2005.
To live in a world where "Dry-gulleted drains gulp down neat rain", where ageing love poets curl fingers "around the long flowing tresses of sentences" while hearing "the excited shriek of her zip", where "not a speck of moth's / dust is mislaid" and yet where death is continually moving into "newly-constructed suburbs" and a rainbow unfolds "its colour chart" precisely at the same time as "someone is dressing up for death" - to live in such a world is to inhabit a place built on infinite care and irony.
Though these quotations are mostly from different poems, the location remains the same. It is O'Driscoll land. It is a place that at first sight appears to be bordering on Larkin country, though it is not entirely contiguous with it, for while the Irish poet is avowedly an admirer of Philip Larkin, he is a more tender, more playful and distinctly less xenophobic writer.
Like Larkin, Dennis O'Driscoll rejects the myth kitty and (usually) the grander passages of high art. Like Larkin he generally addresses himself to ordinary lives, to their ambit of hopes and disappointments. Occasionally he even sounds like Larkin, in "Love Life" for instance, where "love" and "forever" share "the one / sentence like a king-size bed" and where sexual excitement is "a breaking / bag of waters ready to let rip". Like Larkin he writes his "Vers de Société", too (in "No Thanks").
The point about Larkin - the point about his popularity - is that his poems claim no special poetic province. What he felt was being felt by a vast number of people. He was an inhabitant of the Everyman estate. He respected people for what they were, understanding their frustrations and desires. And so does O'Driscoll. His major long poem, a remarkable work, "The Bottom Line", is about the life of the office, the routines of lower and middle management, and in it he makes us understand that the poetry of such lives is precisely that: poetry. The poet, in other words, is not there to tell people how they should feel but to try to understand, to share and to give shape to their feeling.
That's a tall order, of course. Part of it, in O'Driscoll's case, is done in technical terms, so that when employing similes, for example, the comparison of the ordinary is frequently not to the extraordinary but to the even more ordinary, in seeing that the extraordinary lies in the comedy of their coexistence. In "Heat Wave", a poem from the 2002 collection Exemplary Damages, we see how "A bee paused as if to dab its brow / before lapping up more gold reserves", how "Spiders hung flies out to dry", and movingly, miraculously at the end, how the child in memory romped among flower beds, hearing "his mother's voice pressed thin and flat / as she summoned him languidly back / to the cool, flagstoned kitchen, / ice-cream blotches daubed / like sun block on his pudgy face."
The cool flagstones of that kitchen are never far away, nor is the droll, quizzical eye that watches the world that surrounds it. Ever distrustful of exaggeration, O'Driscoll's poems on rural life concentrate less on the seething Heaneyesque sense of the numinous and more, as in "Hay Barn", on "Loose clumps / poked from smoking / mouths of cattle", the "rodent-patter / of rain", and hens with "dung-speckled eggs" which lead the child observer to ruminate "on abundance / rooted to the ground / with awe."
This childhood underlies the poems but rarely comes to the surface in terms of autobiography or memoir, and, where it does, it appears as a moving but rarely indulged place of loss involving the death of the mother and the father. O'Driscoll's early poems are full of death and fearful of false security. As one of the poems, "Traces", tells us: "beneath the surface of our lives / skin deep is buried death". And in "Middle-Class Blues", the man who has everything ("A beautiful young wife. / A comfortable home. / A secure job. / A velvet three-piece suite" and so forth) is far from secure:
What he is afraid of most
and what keeps him tossing some nights
on the electric underblanket
listening to the antique clock
clicking with disapproval from the landing.
Are the stories that begin:
He had everything.
A beautiful young wife.
A comfortable home.
A secure job.
Then one day.
The very title "Middle-Class Blues" tells you that O'Driscoll has been reading Brecht. And, as it turns out, not only Brecht, but Borges, Holub, Celan, Herbert, Primo Levi, Jenõ Dsida and many others definitely not part of Larkinland. And this is perhaps the most astonishing and least remarked element of O'Driscoll's writing. He writes of domestic affairs, of the life of suburban Organisation Man in a plain-spoken Larkinian manner, but he brings to it a subtle European awareness, so the modernist bones of Popa, Prévert and Pavese shine through the Larkin flesh. They shine there so naturally we hardly notice the join.
But the bones are there in the building of the poems too. O'Driscoll is a builder of lists. Where other poets use stanza, rhyme or conventional form to structure their imaginations, O'Driscoll's favourite trope is repetition, as in these examples from various poems: "Someone is writing a cheque / someone is circling, posthumous"; "That she is a widow. / That these are the last untinged memories of her life." ; "Let it rain. / Let the clouds discharge their contents like reserve tanks.".
Such lists run right through O'Driscoll's work from the earliest poems to the most recent ones. These bows to eastern European and Parisian modernism are the regular hammer taps of experience for O'Driscoll. They can be menacing or, cumulatively, almost ecstatic. They are the businesslike itemisation of that which transcends business.
O'Driscoll is European-modernist in other ways too: in his use of the prose poem for example, of the formal experiment as in "Towards a Cesare Pavese Title", in the littering of gnomisms and downbeat epigrams, in the accumulations of the paraphernalia of modern life ("Elevator pings. Linen Trolleys", "The steely assurance / of the self-cleaning hob", the bedroom "where the en suite tiles / leave much to be desired"); in the deployment of management and ledger talk.
But above all, there is the sheer humaneness of a poetry that does extraordinary things while shrugging its shoulders and proceeding as though such things were normal. Nowhere in this review have I referred to the specifics of contemporary Irish poetry, for while traces of Kavanagh and Mahon are detectable, it is as a poet of European temperament, and stature, that O'Driscoll demands to be judged. His terrain is, in effect, without borders: mordant, open, sharp, generous and sad, like the father he describes in "Family Album":
He smiles at some remark of mine.
Tonight, he will repeat it to my mother
as she fills the ringing tea pot
with hot water; and, dinner eaten, will
record it proudly in his diary like a sale.
A more sentimental poet would have put a comma after "diary". A properly tragic, precise one leaves it out.
Obituaries and notices: The Irish Independent, The Irish Times (Battersby), The Irish Times (Smyth), The Poetry Foundation, Wikipedia