Castlebeck, Free Travel Pass, King Lear, Maureen Durcan, Paul Durcan, poem, poems, Poetry, Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have My Being, review, Self-Pity, Shakespeare, The Most Extraordinary Innovation, Thinking About Suicide, To Brian Friel on His Eightieth Birthday, verse
You lash out at the strange and frightening; you lack the ability to control your bowels; you’re helpless and depend upon your loved ones to feed and dress you. Whether you’re a cutsie little toddler, fragranced with wholesome mother’s milk, or a urine scented and demented geriatric makes all the difference to this picture. It’s a shocking dichotomy, as the pensioner will have paid a life-time of taxes, contributed to society and possibly even have fought in a world war. All the baby’s done is to soil a few nappies. Dying’s one thing but, in these days of medical progress, extreme old age is in a different league of fear. The elderly offend the eyes of our cult of youth and are wheeled into darkened corners to exhale their last few years before shuffling off. To make matters worse, cases with video evidence like the abuse at Castlebeck’s Winterbourne View unit, Hambrook, must be a fraction of the abuse out there. Society’s relationship with the elderly is broken, the love institutionalised out of it.
In Praise In Which I Live and Move and Have My Being, Paul Durcan meditates on encroaching old age and a number of the opening poems frame it positively. In To Brian Friel on His Eightieth Birthday, the ageing persona’s lust is recalibrated as he gazes upon ‘Irina – a bitterly attractive young middle-aged French woman’ not only with ‘golden tresses’ but also ‘buck teeth’ and the speaker feels like ‘an old ram looking into a plate-glass shop window / Unable not to see [his] horned visage peering back out’. Yes, there’s something hairy and animalistic about this image but the horns and the old age echo the likes of Chaucer’s Januarie from The Merchant’s Tale – there’s something pathetic, ridiculous even, about this lusty old ram.
In The Most Extraordinary Innovation, Durcan continues to pursue the comic potential of geriatric libido: ‘What an extraordinary thing it is to be nursed! / Ordinarily I’d be skulking in my den! / Nursed! All of a sudden to be taken in hand, / In the public ward of a general hospital, / Mayo General Hospital in Castlebar, / Nurtured, nourished by a female stranger!’ The poem flits between the maternal and picture postcard smut and presents a romanticized image of nursing that makes old age look like an appealing proposition. Given that elsewhere in the collection Durcan touches on the banking crisis and the fatal wounding of the Celtic Tiger, his faith in society is touching.
The poem is proceeded by one of the collection’s many elegies, Maureen Durcan, a poem that, despite its positive outlook, undermines the Carry on Doctor elements of Durcan’s tone in the earlier poem. The speaker becomes ‘A grain of sand’, insignificant and worthless and Maureen Durcan’s final question juts against the void of space at the end of the poem. This uneasy position problematises the poem’s warmth and twee butterfly image. ‘”While you were sleeping, Paul, I died. / Isn’t it the most glorious morning!”‘ The full stop following died is a termination. How I want to believe in the poem’s miraculous resurrection and final line of apparent optimism.
However, Durcan’s collection plumbs the cold, deep, still water in Thinking About Suicide, a deserted Gethsemane of suffering. ‘Estranged from my family, if I do not soon / Take my own life, others will take it from me – / Hooded males with knives in their tracksuits // Or medics in their scrubs prancing corridors / Or cowpat-faced ward sisters smirking / Or ice-cold proprietors of old people’s homes’. Here, Durcan’s in the icy reaches of investigative journalism and the faceless converted town houses in our localities, townhouses concealing rooms the sizes of cells and professional carers unknown to family members. The collection is constantly on the move, however, and this, its darkest poem, is undercut by Self-Pity, the poem which follows hard on its heels.
Pete Postlethwaite’s King Lear was physically shocking. On the heath, virtually naked, his emaciated body drew a gasp. Looking back, his cancer must have been advanced and he was working to spite it. For me, Lear is Shakespeare’s greatest play, charting the absurd comedy of a man first stripped of his power, dignity and then stripped physically too. Postlethwaite’s brokenness haunted the stage like a memento mori. I’m not trying to suggest that Durcan’s Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have my Being is King Lear but Durcan’s collection is a meditation on growing old suffused with his trademark humour and dark despair. Death stalks this collection, yet Durcan closes with Free Travel Pass and, with his signature use repetition, he grinds his excitement into the reader. ‘Having received a lecture on the dangers of codeine, / Instead of my credit card I hand the cocky young female pharmacist / My Free Travel Pass. / She also snaps at me: / “Sir, that’s your Free Travel Pass.” / “Oh, so it is!” I cry. “Forgive me! / I have only this very morning / Received my Free Travel Pass and / I am so – so hyper – is that the word? / How I’d love to tango with you!” / She glares a very, very PC glare’. With these vertiginous swoops from high to low, Durcan makes the cold feel very cold indeed.
Nice article. One of my favourites from this collection is ‘Woman, Outside’ in which the outraged voices of witnesses ask who the sixty something woman is, sauntering in a mini skirt like a young girl. ‘Who does she think she is, herself?’ I take this to be a very liberating poem, but now wonder if the woman is really is ‘free to saunter now and forever more.’ I hope so.
I heard Durcan on the radio recently and recommend seeking out recordings of him reading his work.
Hi, Roy. I love that poem and you’re right; I think that Durcan sees liberation in age as well. I’m sorry to have missed Durcan on the radio. I have heard him read a few things on the Poetry Trust’s website but I’m staying on the lookout for more. Once heard, his reading is never forgotten!
Roy: Naomi Jaffa has posted a link to part one of an interview at the bottom of this discussion thread.
I do like your posts, John. They are always thought-provoking. I am really interested in old age. My father died this year. My mother 83, and almost blind, lives alone, desperate to protect her dignity and independence. Why, when we will all get there (if we’re lucky) do we neglect the aged so badly. I have nursed the elderly and felt their ambivalence. Do we not see ourselves in their eyes? I am writing my own poems about age at the moment. I shall look out for Paul Durcan’s collection. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.
Thanks, Ingrid. It’s baffling, isn’t it? Babies have their community ready made for them but the geographical dispersion created by C21st working habits means that there’s little family available for the elderly (and our working hours have changed too). Perhaps if the environmental crises predicted by some comes to pass, or at least that fuel prices continue to rise, then we’ll stay in our home towns and the extended family will live again. I wonder how future generations will judge us?
I would be interested to see your writing on the subject, if you ever feel like sharing.
As for Paul Durcan, take a look at Naomi Jaffa’s comment below. She has kindly done my work for me and has included the link to a reading. He’s a sensational performer! Enjoy. John.
Naomi Jaffa said:
Another great post, John – thank you. And may I shamelessly use this opportunity to recommend our recent podcast – an edited version of a longer interview with Paul Durcan, recorded in Suffolk in August when he came to deliver a fantastic reading at our Poetry Prom at Snape Maltings. The podcast is on our Poetry Channel at:
(The other ‘half’ of the interview with Durcan will appear in print, in our next edition of The Poetry Paper.)
Thanks for the message, Naomi, and thanks for the link to the Durcan interview… you’re doing my job for me!
Naomi Jaffa said:
My pleasure, John. Thank you for letting us ‘trespass’ on your blog!
Thanks Naomi for the link. Just got Cries of an Irish Caveman out of the Scottish Poetry Library.