Ian Duhig’s ‘The Blind Roadmaker’

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This review was commissioned for the T.S. Eliot Prize newsletter and is reprinted with kind permission.

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Photo credit: johnfield1

This review was commissioned for the T.S. Eliot Prize newsletter and is reprinted with kind permission.

This review was commissioned for the T.S. Eliot Prize newsletter and is reprinted with kind permission.

Who does a society decide to memorialise and who does it shuffle to the margins of its history?

Duhig’s titular blind road-maker, the remarkable Blind Jack Metcalf, was born blind but, nevertheless, worked as a successful musician, tour guide and, in later years, as a civil engineer. In The Blind Road-Maker, Duhig memorialises a range of figures: from Metcalf and the fifteenth century prophetess, Mother Shipton, both almost obliterated from history, to canonical figures like Laurence Sterne and William Langland.

In ‘The Ballad of Blind Jack Metcalf’, Duhig writes in that most proletarian of poetic forms: ballad – the form of the road as it brought news from place-to-place, to the ordinary and perhaps illiterate. Duhig describes Metcalf as ‘a soldier, smuggler, fiddler, guide’. That middle ‘fiddler’ disrupts the alliterative neatness of the list with a little jolt – another of Jack’s forays on the wrong side of the law, perhaps, but also a nod to an early position as a musician at the Queen’s Head, Harrogate. Without knowing his history, he can be misconstrued and Duhig helps us to enjoy this as we catch up on Wikipedia. Here, as elsewhere in the collection, Duhig validates his subjects with cross-cultural comparisons, describing Metcalf as ‘our Daedalus of roads’. (In ‘Mother Shipton’ the prophetess is ‘our Yorkshire Sibyl’, and the first person plural pronoun adds a sense of proud collective ownership.) The ballad leaves the reader at the sit-by-me statue of Metcalf in Knaresborough where Jack’s ‘secret tale’s picked out in Braille / and what it says is that…’ It’s a great ending – the waywiser wheel (pedometer) beside him points to the homing circularity of our journeys and the poem’s circular structure too completes its own revolution but, rather beautifully, the ellipsis transforms into Braille, bringing the reader physically close to the statue.

The collection also engages with questions of aesthetics. ‘The Marbled Page’ considers a page from Sterne’s experimental novel, Tristram Shandy, unique to each copy, hand-marbled and which the eponymous hero describes as ‘the motly emblem of my work’. Duhig’s poem opens: ‘For Aristotle, marble’s motley / trapped gobs of first matter / from the moment of Creation / when Fortune mothered God’. Aristotle and marble locate the poem within a Classical context, pushing us, therefore, to read ‘gobs’ as a dialect word for mass, or lump. Marble, the building material of choice for the Classical world is placed at the centre of creation and, for a moment, Duhig permits his reader to imagine Sterne located there too as the marbling begins to ‘multiply like spiral galaxies’ as ‘the author priest watches over / the reproduction of his design’. Again, Duhig’s economical writing is playful as, at one level, the author becomes the celebrant of a sacred rite and, of course, Sterne was a vicar. When he ‘looks away. / The book-maker clears his throat / and gobs into the marbling trough’ and why, we wonder, do we enjoy the whirls and whorls of marble, but not those of a well-cleared throat? High culture is taken down a peg or two as a nameless bystander weaves his DNA into literary history.

If you enjoy this collection, check out the Leeds poet and classicist, Tony Harrison. In his work, pop and high culture, rich and poor, the proletariat and their oppressors collide. These poems doff their cap. In ‘Blockbusters’ the ‘locals speak blank verse (says Harrison)’ and Duhig’s remarkable poem reminds of Harrison’s ‘Durham’. It’s a treat to read verse with this kind of agility, scale and sense of social purpose.

Buy The Blind Roadmaker from Picador