Though I’d read some of Durcan’s work in anthologies, my first sustained exposure was back in 1994 when my friend, Cindy Reich, gave me a present of a book called Give Me Your Hand, with an inscription inside that read: “To Mick in Niwot. Love and warmest wishes. Paul Durcan. TCD 9.3.94” The poems in this collection are based on paintings in the National Gallery in London. And they are a delight. Rather like improv comedy, they take a slanted view on these familiar paintings and create backstories and observations that draw the eye and the understanding in new and fresh ways. Here you will find Van Gogh’s mother berating art historians; there’s a strange riff from one Jesus who claims he was born in Belfast — “my father Joe was a fitter in the Harland and Wolff shipyard”; an old tiger in a nursing home gets a visit from his nephew: Mrs. Andrews plots the murder of Mr. Andrews.
James Joyce wrought Dublin as a metaphor for the whole world. Kavanagh used the hills of Monaghan to show that the provincial could contain the universal. But Durcan explores the human mind with its whims and imaginative leaps to jolt us out of our habit of thinking that we understand what we see.
And he does it in a sometimes hilarious way. His own background is a painful one — he was the son of a circuit judge who thought him “a sissy’ and who had him committed, as a young man, to a mental hospital and subjected to electro-shock therapy to cure him of his unconventional ways. This has left many psychic scars, according to the poet himself, but the humanity and compassion of his work and the wry and witty askance views of life are wonderful.
Here’s a snippet of Cardinal Richelieu and all of The Rokeby Venus.
Mother, I do appreciate how chuffed
You must be that your son is a cardinal
But it is a hard old station staying off the drink
You in your turn must appreciate
That what takes precedence in my life
Is not you or wine but my red biretta
I lie on my bed
In the raw watching videos
Soap after soap
Weeping my eyes out
On a Yorkshire moor
A kicked-over heap of tears
Is that not what a woman is -
A kicked-over heap of tears?
Pity about men.
There was a stage production that ran for a month in New York last year featuring two fine actors, Dermot Crowley and Dearbhla Molloy. I'm hoping that some enterprising presenters will pick this show up and that we might see a tour.