Tag Archives: Beth McDonough

Review of The Days of Surprise by Paul Durcan

25 Feb

daysAs part of our project to make available reviews of poets taking part at StAnza 2015, we are obliged to DURA – the Dundee University Review of the Arts – for allowing us to re-post this review from their website. Written by staff and students, DURA supports independent cinema & publishing. DURA promotes diversity and supports local and regional arts. See more reviews of poetry and prose on their website at http://dura-dundee.org.uk

The Days of Surprise

Paul Durcan
(Harvill Secker, 2014); hbk, £12

There is a feeling that had Seamus Heaney entered any Dublin pub everyone would have known him, whereas Ted Hughes would have passed unnoticed in a London bar. Paul Durcan sits very near Heaney’s right hand in Irish affections, which may come as some surprise on this side of the water. Certainly, my first reading of this, his most recent of twenty plus poetry collections, did not instantly endear me to his work. I was struck by a clutter of upper case letters, a seeming punctuation surfeit and especially by the extraordinary quantity of exclamation marks.

However, that only points out my own inexperience. Durcan has received far too many awards to be dismissed on a cursory reading. He was Ireland Professor of Poetry from 2004 to 2007 and the Irish know more than a little about verse. Colm Tóibín cited an earlier collection as his Guardian Book of the Year and he has sung with Van the Man. Durcan merits investigation.

Despite a difficult relationship with his barrister father (which he examines here in “The Poet and the Judge”), Durcan took the perhaps expected path, reading law. His studies were interrupted when his family had him forcibly committed to a mental hospital. This descendant of Maud Gonne and John MacBryde endured treatments of E.C.T. and heavy sedation. Against this backdrop, his quirky, erudite poetry already begins to become more understandable.

Through his remarkable weekly radio broadcasts and recordings, Durcan’s voice is well-known to Irish listeners. Hearing his soft, surprising voice also lifts his poetry from the page. These radio programmes occupy quite a different space in Irish life from the niche that UK poetry broadcasts tend to fill; arguably, the Irish listener is already well-primed to read Durcan.

The Days of Surprise seems to work almost as a journal, opening with the significant “57 Dartmouth Square” which serves both an introduction to the poet and a haunting self-examination:

Sometimes I was called Paul
But mostly I was not a who or a what
But a where.

The next ten poems develop that early autobiographical theme. Knowing something of his life, his verse might be expected to be painfully confessional, but whilst there are dark revelations, and punch-in-the-gut sensations, Durcan has a delightfully off the wall touch, laced with surprising humour and hope. He writes in a racy, often gossipy and conspiratorial voice, witty with word play. He has a way with bold statements, pithy lists, and well-placed repetition and rhyme.

A lively observer of daily life, he knits together the famous, the infamous with the ordinary with a levelling, irrepressible charm.  Like many Irish poets, he looks closely at Roman Catholicism, but his is a balanced observation, unflinching yet far from polemical. In a series which includes the titular poem, covering the present pope’s election, he notes –

I will pray not only for a black pope
But for a black Archbishop of Dublin.
We Irish also have had enough
Of the hegemony of the white Irishman.
What is more, I will pray like a madman
For a black woman Archbishop of Dublin.
I am dust, and unto dust I shall return.

Alleluias doubtless sounded in the streets of Swords. His greeting to the incoming Argentinean after “The German Shepherd” warms, and he is stiletto-sharply brilliant in his observation of a mean Benedictine –

His urinal-stall mouth, his stick it in your face mask
His eyebrows crawling all over you,
His spilling-over jowls cowled.

This deceptively light touch lets him slip in some wonderful satire on other aspects of being Irish; consider his take on the now toothless Government –  not least in “1916, Not to be Commemorated” and he keens on the ailing Celtic tiger, prowling the ghost estates.

Undoubtedly, Durcan deserves a greater UK readership. Radio Scotland might do well to broadcast his Addresses to the Nation, in order that we can be truly ready to enjoy him.

Beth McDonough


Paul Durcan will appear at StAnza 2015 on 6th March. http://www.stanzapoetry.org/2015/participant.php?participant=747


Review of Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa

31 Jan

dancingAs part of our project to make available reviews of poets taking part at StAnza 2015, we are obliged to DURA – the Dundee University Review of the Arts – for allowing us to re-post this review from their website. Written by staff and students, DURA supports independent cinema & publishing. DURA promotes diversity and supports local and regional arts. See more reviews of poetry and prose on their website at http://dura-dundee.org.uk/ – This review by Beth McDonough, Writer in Residence at the University of Dundee, is of Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa


Ilya Kaminsky
(Arc, 2014); pbk: £8.99


I was born in the city named after Odysseus
and I praise no nation –

to the rhythm of snow
an immigrant’s clumsy phrases fall into speech.


Ilya Kaminsky is an immigrant but in this his first full collection his phrasing is anything but clumsy. Born in Odessa, his family was granted US asylum in 1993, and the poet continues to work in various ways supporting the rights of the poor and disenfranchised. Those reading his poetry may be surprised that English is his second language and that he was only in his twenties when this collection was first published by Tupelo in the US in 2004. So sure is his grasp of his adopted tongue that he can pattern Russian-structured English in direct speech differently from his own fluent English.

A beautifully sequenced and curated collection, Dancing in Odessa is divided into an opening prayer, followed by five distinct but linked sections. The final group excepting, each of these begins with a memory-deep poem (and in most cases a prose poem), sunk to the bottom of the page.

In “Musica Humana [an elegy for Osip Mandelstam]” (section II), Kaminsky defines the earlier Acmeist poet, Mandelstam, as a “modern Orpheus”. Tracing his predecessor’s traumatic life to his death in a Gulag in 1938, the reference is justified indeed. The reader expecting an unrelenting delineation of woe, or poetry shaped after Acmeist movement will be surprised. Kaminsky’s elegy travels through stanzaic forms, prose poetry fragments, square-bracketed interjections and even a recipe.

For all that undeniably harrowing biography, and by extension those of the Travelling Musicians, Celan, Brodsky, Babel and Tsvetaeva, these poems are far from misery memoirs. Trauma is never skirted but these poems dance in unexpected warmth and even humour; Kaminsky’s writing has a surreal aspect, often bordering on the ecstatic. George Szirtes offers high praise on the cover, and indeed there are parallels with his own work and that of Helen Ivory.

Poetry verging on glossolalia is arguably a high-wire act, not only for the poet but especially for the reader yet such is the strength of the imagery and the language here, and the structured quality of the sequencing of these poems that Kaminsky balances these challenges with panache.

In a sometimes pulsating joie de vivre, Kaminsky can conjure some remarkable effects. Consider “In Praise of Laughter”, all in tercets bar the final couplet, the lines ring with repetition, and with both internal and end rhymes. What can be read as a comforting rhythmic dance, albeit one telling of sadness, becomes utterly shocking in the fifth stanza, and all the more so because of the deceptive propulsion of the earlier words. How much sharper then for the reader are the lines


He was shot, and my grandmother raped
by the public prosecutor, who stuck his pen in her vagina,

the pen which signed people off for twenty years.


Or, in “A Toast”


October: grapes hung like the fists of a girl
gassed in her prayer.


“Natalia” (Section III) recounts a love song, again in ostensibly traditional verse, cut with shifting points of view, prose poems placed like footnotes, the section ends with the haunting “Envoi”, set in another time, elsewhere.

Kaminsky says that he began writing in English after his father’s death in 1994, “because no-one in my family knew it […]. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom.” Aged four, he became almost completely deaf and indeed hearing loss is a running theme in this collection. This freedom can be said to carry lyrically into a language that he has never properly heard.

Whatever past horrors Kaminsky remembers, there is also love and joyous detail. “But you asked for a story with a happy ending” the final poem recalls. There isn’t quite a happy ending as such, no forgetting any of his painful hinterland. There is, however, an openness to a thrilling future and happily, Kaminsky has much more to offer. His next collection tempts already.


Beth McDonough


Ilya Kaminsky will be taking part in events at StAnza on 7th March http://www.stanzapoetry.org/2015/participant.php?participant=708

Poetry Map of Scotland poem 86: Ardminish, Gigha

7 Nov

Waiting at Ardminish

A lowtide slackwater rhythm soothes rocks,
sways kelp through tourmaline clears;
gulls overhead hardly squall, to eavesdrop
birdnoises, pinkpurpled in orchids, when our air
feels the mainland’s first pulse – a boom
in the somewhere grows bigger with chugs ,
fills out in red, black and white, then
horns into mind, churns oceans opaque.

The ramp clangs hard on the slip,
lets the van’s first drivebang roll onto deck;
outspills the postie, three sacks for the ferryman,
delivered in the sun of her kiss.

Beth McDonough

To view our map of Scotland in Poems as it grows, see https://stanzapoetry.wordpress.com/2014/07/13/the-map-revealed/ . For more information on this project, and on how to submit a poem, see https://stanzapoetry.wordpress.com/2014/07/04/mapping-scotland-in-poetry/.

Map data ©2014 GeoBasis-DE/BKG (©2009), Google Imagery ©2014 TerraMetrics

Map data ©2014 GeoBasis-DE/BKG (©2009), Google Imagery ©2014 TerraMetrics

All poems on our poetry map of Scotland and on the StAnza Blog are subject to copyright and should not be reproduced otherwise without the poet’s permission.

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