Welcome to my new blog

Hi there.

I'm a writer and freelance teacher and editor with an addiction to new technology.

Having haphazardly kept a blog elsewhere over the past couple of years, I'm determined to start afresh with this one. The challenge will be to keep it updated, interesting and relevant. Time will tell.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

He disappeared in the dead of winter

Auden was talking about Yeats here, but it's equally apt in the case of the great Dennis O'Driscoll, who died on 24th December at the unbearably young age of 58. Dennis had an extraordinary talent of making everyone feel like they were his good friend; he embodied courtesy in a world where it was rare and never forgot to acknowledge in that lovely large cursive handwriting of his anything he felt deserved to be acknowledged. I'm incredibly proud that his last signed book for me - his collection Dear Life published by Anvil this Summer - mentioned a 'valued friendship'; I did nothing to deserve it, God knows, but Dennis was generous that way.

I reviewed Dear Life for a UK literary journal; the review, written last July, was sadly confident that Dennis would have many years of productive retirement ahead of him. I reproduce it here as one last, sad, tribute to a very great poet and a very great man.


Dear Life by Dennis O’Driscoll, 112pp, £9.95, Anvil Press Poetry, Neptune House, 70 Royal Hill, London SE10 8RF. www.anvilpresspoetry.com

I don’t remember many texts I studied at school, but for some reason Charles Lamb’s ‘The Superannuated Man’ has stayed with me; there is something chilling about his description of the impact of working for a living: ‘I had grown to my desk, as it were; and the wood had entered into my soul’. Reading Dennis O’Driscoll’s new collection (his ninth), I wonder whether he might share the sentiment. O’Driscoll recently retired from the Irish civil service so now has the time to ponder on what life offers when one is released from the bondages of employment. He treats this major transition with characteristic causticity:

     I forfeited my rightful place at the tea-break table.
     An I’m Boss mug expectorating on the draining board.
     The Man United one Tipp-Exed with a name.
     A plastic milk container on which Stats is scrawled.
                                                            [‘Retirement’ from ‘Revenue Customs’]

That verb ‘expectorate’ is the key to O’Driscoll’s understated genius; it lifts what might otherwise seem pure documentary onto another level entirely.
     O’Driscoll’s mordant wit informs many of these poems, particularly those that dissect the clichés in the popular culture of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. In ‘Fair Game’, the target is ‘The elephant in the room’ – we’ve ignored a lot of those over here. In ‘Compo’, he forensically skewers the cult of anger that is equally prevalent:

     Be absolutely apopletic.
     Fuming mad.
     Lobby. Picket. Hector.
     Threaten to bring your case
     to the highest tribunal in the land.

O’Driscoll’s approach to humour is similar to that of US poet Billy Collins; he pursues an idea far beyond its logical conclusion and forces the reader, in the process, to reconsider everything she has taken as a given.
     But beyond the humour is a darker thread, an almost despairing recognition that mankind has what he calls in the poem ‘Spare Us’, an ‘built-in obsolescence’, both on a general level – ‘Consign us to the past / Find solutions to what baffled us. / Put us down to experience’ (from ‘Not The Dead’) – and on a personal one. Some poems relate to illness and to the resulting awareness of transience:

     The tally of years
     added up so rapidly
     it appeared I had
     been short-changed,
     tricked by sleight
     of hand, fallen victim
     to false bookkeeping.
                        [‘Time Enough’]

Yet O’Driscoll is a poet always prepared to see the other side of the argument, as the poem ‘Admissions’ attests:

     Before you do down life again,
     badmouth a world that never lives up
     to its billing, recall how glorious it seemed,
     your unwillingness to let go, that evening
     you were driven to Admissions.

For this poet, each ‘shabby sight’ ‘gleams with some ameliorating / feature’ and this preparedness to accept imperfection is the prevailing tone of the penultimate, title poem.

     [ …….. ] Leaves swirl around my feet now in a crinkled tin-
     foil din. Thousands of leaves. A sybil’s mixed signals, they shift
     positions, shuffle their decks like tarot packs, gyrate sugges-
     tively. I go on my knees in search. Keep on drawing blanks.
                                                            [‘Dear Life’]

This is a thoughtful, funny, sad and ultimately moving book of poems. I recommend it whole-heartedly.


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  2. The Superannuated Man is my favourite piece of writing. Taught it many times. Nice to see it is remembered.
    I bought a copy of Dear Life yesterday. Do you know where O'Driscoll's parents came from? I come from the same area as him but the surname does not ring a local bell for me. Cork?