Elegies by Douglas Dunn

Grief experts say grief has a shape; they have charted its pattern.  First there is shock, then denial, then bargaining (for more time), then guilt, anger, depression, and finally acceptance. The experts disagree over the number and order of the stages but they all agree there is a pattern.

The experts could probably track the stages in Elegies, a collection of poems written by Scottish poet Douglas Dunn following the death of his first wife. Shock and denial at the cancer diagnosis in Second Opinion (“the mind sliding against events”); guilt for the time he stopped her buying a new dress in Empty Wardrobe (“that day in Paris…/When I said No”); depression in Anniversaries (“I passed our wedding day / Drunk…a null / White-out of loss and alcohol.”)

But the power of the collection owes less to perceived patterns of grief than to the interplay of words and ideas between the poems themselves. There’s a chance meeting with a man whose son is dying of leukaemia in Reading Pascal in the Lowlands, which ends with Dunn climbing a hill: “I look down on / A little town…its undramatic streets.” “Undramatic” contrasts with and highlights the real, human dramas being played out behind closed doors.

For Dunn, “The town is part of my mourning” as he writes in a later poem, December.  “Reality, I remember you as her soft kiss / At morning. You were her presence beside me.” “Kiss” echoes a line in the preceding poem, Home Again, which sees Dunn returning to an empty house after six weeks away “The room is an aghast mouth. Its kiss is cold.”  And as I’m writing I’m stuck by the homophones “mourning” and “morning” in December.  Clever.

But…confession time. I read Elegies with my mobile phone to hand so I could use the search engine.  It’s not that I think you need to ‘understand’ a poem to enjoy it. I don’t see poems as puzzles to be solved; poetry, like music, can convey meaning through sound and rhythm as much as through words. That said, Elegies contained so many words or references I didn’t know – Gallovidian, glamourie, Armorica, angelophanous, birkenshaw, Androphonus, Mnemosyne, longanimous – I began to think I was missing out. So I caved in and consulted Google.

Despite this – perhaps because of it – a simple line can suddenly break through and wrench your heart. A case in point is The Stories, an extended lament that “No longer are there far-flung outposts of the Empire / Where a heartsore widower could command a wall / Against the hairy raiders…” It’s choc-full of unfamiliar names (to me): Kampuchea, Spitzbergen, Gustavus Adolphus, Dalgetty. The mood of the poem changes with the realisation that this fantasy is “ludicrous…lunacy” and then we’re arrested by “Why be discreet? A broken heart is what I have.”   

Elegies is not short on critical acclaim.  It won the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1985 and the book jacket of my Faber & Faber copy contains quotes from critics making comparisons to Tennyson’s In Memoriam and Thomas Hardy’s poems after the death of his first wife.  Illustrious company.

For me? Truth be told, if I’m reading for pleasure I’d rather not have to make quite so many pencil notes in the margins simply for comprehension.

Rating: * Worth a try but not for me

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