Roundabouts are disorientating – the work of the devil – and often I’ll have to orbit in a holding pattern to get my bearings. Recently, in a shopping mall I’ve visited countless times, I had to ask a security guard for directions. In my defence, I struggle even to recognize the town – or country – I’m in based soley on the bland McStreets of global consumerism. So, geographical credentials established, you’ll understand the pride taken in successfully threading my way through a town or city to a specific destination. Google Street View becomes a game in which my childish self is pitted against the man. We both start at the front door, but can the adult still negotiate the short walk to primary school – a journey once negotiated on autopilot while collecting and unpeeling cigarette ends? Synapses reconfigure themselves in an unfamiliar topology and, as I crane my neck over the digital fence, hoping for an orientating glimpse of the Guiness’s boathouse, all I see are the limits of the obstinate pixels that circumscribe my memory.
In The Years, Tom Duddy’s posthumously published collection of poetry, his vivid, authentic presentation of nostalgia, and the tragedy of mortality is almost unbearable at times. The reader is broken-in gently with poems like Eagles and Victors in which the litany of yesteryear’s comics also signals the ambition, optimism and heroism of a rose-tinted past with its ‘swapped Eagles, Victors, Valiants / and Hotspurs.’ While Duddy’s final stanza is a long way away from that unequalable and unendurable joy, at least the poem suggests that the adult world can match this childhood joy, albeit on a smaller scale: ‘The only thing that can compare now / is a new book of poems in which / someone from the far side of an old / or new world, making do with words, / puts you in the picture by the dint of exactitude, leaving small hints / of the unknown.’
In Story Time, Duddy rejects the big screen dénouement for the short, sharp shock of the ‘moment in any story / where it says: The years passed. // With every great skip of time, / one great skip of the heart! //’ The first stanza’s seamless list of three dramatic moments within a single sentence suggests their dullness and inconsequence but, as the years pass, Duddy’s page falls silent and, as the poem recommences, its lines are torn both from within and from without. ‘Skip’ suggests a lightness and effortlessness which is at odds with implacable time. The structure of the line is echoed in second half of the couplet, implying that a ‘great skip of time’ is the same as a ‘great skip of the heart.’ Well, perhaps it is, but the consequences are quite different: a skip in time, measured in the geological strata William Dyce observes in Pegwell Bay, may be a blink of the eye in geological terms but, measured in human terms, it equates to more than a lifetime. Duddy plays with timescales throughout, as the fairytales of the primary school become the decades ‘pressed / into the blink of the reading eye – where lives are no sooner begun // than already half-lived or long / ended.’ With perfect control, Duddy ends where he began but those words, ‘The years passed,’ inconsequential to the child, have magnified: ‘Life’s not like that, / you think, until one day you hear / hushed word of someone you sat / beside in High Infants.’
The collection is satisfyingly structured, with the early poem, The Lair, plumbing the depths of existential angst, as the speaker’s hideout removes him from the world for a time. However, the hideout is revisited to devastating effect in ‘The Restoration’ where, ‘Driven by a vision of what used to be,/ we took axe, hand-saw, and bill-hook / to the young trees and the old briars / that had thickened to tropical proportions / across the sheltered path to the den / where we once went to hide and play.’ That the men are motivated by a vision expresses both the unreality and the compelling quality of nostalgia, the headiest of drugs. Their rational preparedness speaks of the ordered garden shed of men of a certain age and ought to herald their success but ‘What undid our vision was the rooted / floor. Root, bramble and frond / had replaced stony, smooth-clayed path. / Axe bounced off springily roots, the bill-hook / useless against arm-thick briar. / The path we thought hidden had been / all the way uprooted, not to be / relaid except by a generation / of footfall.’ It’s a grand statement to make, but this poem feels like Robert Frost. Using a simple palette of images and a language bereft of figurative devices, Duddy speaks for us.
As a father, I carried three shell fragments, smoothed on Brighton Beach and bestowed upon me by my daughter. Sometimes, in the working day, I thumbed their concave smoothness and remembered. Reading Duddy’s ‘The Beach Stones,’ I now realize the universality of this behaviour: ‘We thought then / that each stone / the children chose, / held again and turned / in the hand / would deliver us / back to the warm, / lackadaisical day / of its first lifting / and choosing.’ I’ve lost my shells. How they slipped from a deep coat pocket, I don’t know. Pressed into my hand like jewels, I supposed that I had never lost anything so precious but I now realize that the memory of this event, equally fragile and small, risks slipping through the lining of time as well.
It’s easy to speak about the universal quality of the best literature but I use the word with care. Tom Duddy’s poems have the thrilling ability to engage directly with the lives of his readers and this adds up to an experience which is headily nostalgic, honest and utterly human. These are poems to share and savour and, if I read nothing else this year, they would be enough.