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Steve Spence

On the Margins of Great Empires – Selected Poems   Andrew Duncan   Shearsman Books   131 pages   £9.95.

Here we have samples from Andrew Duncan’s poetry collections from 1980 to 2003. He is probably best known for his commentaries on aspects of British and world poetry – some seven books now –
and this appears to be what he has concentrated on mainly in recent years. Nevertheless there is a substantial body of poetry and it’s good to see a decent ‘selected’ at last. There’s a short introduction by Duncan which gives some context to the work and also some idea of his interests and the chronology of the selection.  

Although Duncan is writing from an essentially socialist position there is no didactic aim here but an exploration which mingles the past with the present – you often get the sense of a voice speaking to itself – and mixes the lyric tone with a more analytical approach while bringing in a wealth of information from a variety of sources. In ‘A blue contract of employment, filled in as “Manpower Engineer” ; November, 1978’ from Threads of Iron (1980-81), for example, we get the following:

          They ship you in from the hinterland
          To the capital city. Bodies alongside the trucks
          Full of setts & aggregate, migrating
          From a region of hills whose streets drove wheels.
          They reared the desert up on end and called it a City.

So we have the setting up of an industrial  project, a particular place with a more general proposition, work relations and the power structures that determine them, the individual within the system, under pressure and attempting to respond and analyse – ‘They ship you in…’. At the end of the poem we have this: ‘The job offer written on blue paper. / I fulfil the words of command / Listening to a severed voice of culture’. The ‘severed voice of culture’ could refer to a migrant situation, the requirements of capitalism, but somehow suggests the power relations which are often ignored or seen as ‘natural’. Yet ‘Emotion is / The possession of the dispossessed & /The reasoning of the weak/That food which makes you thin’. Duncan says in his intro that ‘Whatever you write about, people will try to ascribe it to your personality.’ It’s hard not to take this message on board as Duncan is certainly in there somewhere, at a distance, thinking, but a worker also and involved in the process, having a point of view, informed and rational yet emotionally engaged.

‘The June Sun Cast as the Absent Lover’ from Skeleton Looking at Chinese Pictures (1983-7) is one of Duncan’s most memorable poems, having a title which hints at the sort of poetical conceit framed by either Marvell or Donne. To my mind the poem succeeds in being both true to ‘the original’ in terms of its ornamentation, celebration and overtly ‘artificial’ construction while also appealing to a modern reader through its ‘over-the-top’ adornment. Take the final stanza as an example of this, with its gorgeous sense of excess and an embracing of the entire planet and beyond. Here we are almost in ‘Jeremy Reed’ territory:

          I lucify myself with immensity and
          Drench myself in density and
          Glaze myself with gaudy gold and
          Fleece myself with blazes of stellar velocity.

The poem almost works as a parody of the celebratory ode yet its richness and its also occasionally questioning frame – ‘Up there the Fall is still happening, the / Fragments of Paradise fall incessantly to the ground, / The wounded darkness loosens its clench, / Eden’s unnamed florescence thrives for a threemonth’.  –  makes for a complex poem which works on several levels and is yet able to be appreciated for its boldness and perhaps its cheek. I’m thinking of Lee Harwood’s ‘Gorgeous – yet another Brighton poem’ as a point of comparison here.

In ‘Roots of a Revolution’ from Surveillance and Compliance (1987-92) we are back in the world of work and unemployment. The actual situation is not entirely clear to me but it seems that Duncan is dealing with a position where a huge redundancy is taking place and if we’re to take the ‘I’ of the poem literally (as I think we are, there is relatively little experimental play in Duncan’s writing) he appears to be one of ‘the lucky ones’. Thus: ‘In the stasis of fearful energies I flip out unconscious / Twenty thousand people fired and I’ve made a career’. The protagonist – whether Duncan or not – is expressing ambivalent thoughts in relation to ‘the process of rationalisation’ which is taking place, an ongoing fact of the Thatcher years and one which a poet of his intelligence and broadly left-wing alliance is unable to either ignore or respond to in a knee-jerk manner:

          Tell me I was never there
          Tell me my awareness is provincial errors
          Tell me human awareness is unwarrantable
          Tell me I wasn’t part of the group I belonged to for nine years
          Tell me I wished for this to happen
          Tell me not to empathize.
          Rationalise my words
          Rationalize my memories and my emotions
          Rationalise the society I belonged to.
          Illuminate, turn, and erase.

In ‘Wind and Wear in Aix-en-Provence’ from Uncollected (1991-6) we have a mix of the phenomenological and traditional spirit of place landscape poetry where the lyrical voice is melded with, rather than interrupted by, a more cerebral approach, something which Duncan does rather well and may partly reflect an influence from Jeremy Prynne. The individual is a part of the overall picture, rather than a commentator or evoker of the moment – ‘The tree memorised my longings long ago,/Expecting sun nitrates and monkeys’. We are talking about the processes of evolution here but Duncan retains a sense of celebration and ‘immediacy’ which doesn’t feel at odds with the analysis. Someone said recently that Duncan’s originality lay in the content, not the form of his poetry and I’d largely agree with that. He works across time spans, mixing the modern with the archaic in a manner which can be puzzling at times but as with any writer a reader needs to familiarise him or herself with the methods before forming some sort of ‘overall picture’ or response.  I often get the feeling, when reading Duncan’s poetry, of an ongoing sense of the provisional, that this is never ‘the final word’ and his poetry, much to its advantage I think, never has that sense of polish or finish.

Pauper Estate (1996-9) explores life on the dole and we are again given a mix of sociological analysis and a more personal response to ‘reduced circumstances’. Some of the writing here embraces a solidarity with fellow claimants which has a very human feel with its sense of kinship and comfort, as in ‘Looks Like Luxury and Feels Like a Disease’ where we get this:

          In the Rawheel Café, where the claimants become clients,
          The grate of the chicory in the coffee,
          The thickness of the waitress’s Kurdish accent,
          Surpassed the merely generous and comforting.
          Talk was cheap and geniality filled the stomach.

Anyone who has been in this situation will recognise the sense of belonging that can come about, a feeling of security in a very insecure situation. I don’t detect any element of irony or satire here though the title may suggest a different take on the predicament. In ‘the Technique of Visualising’, from the same section, we are presented with a harsher aspect of the situation, again, one which many readers, I imagine, will be able to respond to from personal experience, at least at some point in their lives:

          A door saying JOB CLUB above a white goods shop where
          a small intense man tells us, there are 5 million people looking for work.
          it’s the 1840’s, Marx knows the rules again, the bosses
          have it just how they like and you’ve to be who they want.
          A woman breaks down in sobs, he quietens her
          Vision and fear of her fellow- citizens
          Before telling us we can’t resist him. Not on
          Round about forty five quid a week. Show me your CV.
          At two choices, of taking his group to the streets
          And storming the government seat of Barnet, or foretelling
          Victory through subservience, he shouts at shared doubt
          As if trying to boil a pond by body heat. Tie
          Yourself in knots and we’ll
          Pay for the string.

There is as much information enclosed in this poem as there is in, say, ‘the June Sun Cast as the Absent Lover’, management statistics and analysis as glimpsed through aspects of the natural world: water, fish and birdlife, but the richness is skewed and suggests ambivalence, anxiety and a state of flux. As I’ve said before there appears to be no didactic intent here but a recording of a social situation through the eyes of an insider who is also an outsider.

When I first started reading Andrew Duncan’s poetry and was also struggling belatedly with starting to write my own, I can remember thinking that this guy is so brainy I might as well give up now. I no longer have those feelings as although I don’t always get the references or have the breadth of knowledge to ‘understand’ it all I’ve come to recognise his way of approaching poetry and appreciate at least to an extent what he’s up to. In ‘Precipice of Niches’, from Savage Survivals (1999-2005) we have a mixing of information and disciplines which come together to produce a poetry which is both lyrical and penetrating, combining critique with wonder and exploration, through a variety of  knowledge, of the natural world. There is no persona but the writing induces  feelings of immersion  and curiosity, an unusual blending perhaps:

          A passive and incomprehensible surface
          a culture leaving its Time in puzzles and masks
          wonderful & unfamiliar self, a perfect refuge
          growing and dividing at visible speed
          tremulous in many leaves dancing,
          in vaults where the deep dark forms sift and sop around
          recreating shells of lost moments
          where horizons part and deny each other
          a foam of local ends to vision
          a matrix shimmering with traps and part-worlds

I think the fact that Duncan’s father was an historian of astronomy might partly explain the multi-sensual wonder in the above and certainly nobody could accuse Duncan himself of being trapped in the mundane, even where he is describing the effects on ‘the spirit’ of poverty and exclusion.

According to the author, ‘Q-landscapes’, from the final selection, The Imaginary in Geometry (1999-2003) is about advertising as “capitalist realism”. ‘Imagine a cherry if it were missing / restore its redness; /entire social orders unlatched & dropped into forgetting’.  I’m reminded again of Jeremy Reed’s celebrations of consumer culture which also have their caustic, anxiety driven dreamscapes reminiscent of J.G. Ballard but Duncan’s critique, when he gets going, is more of an overview, an attempt to embrace a whole system, a ‘civilisation’ based on a Hollywood movie before the curtain is opened and the conjuring trick is exposed: ‘How does it feel to be just a projection? / I only start to exist when the lights go on. / Otherwise I just rest or try on hats’. Duncan is suggestive of the way that ‘history’ has now become ‘heritage’ and a pervasive form of looking at the past is based on costume dramas, luxury and a subliminal sense that everything is right with the world. This
consumerist perspective ignores, of course, the way that ‘the past’ has come crashing into the western consciousness since at least the early part of the century:

          Rejoice in the Modern Style villa in Richmond
          rejoice in Edmund, king of East Anglia
          rejoice in the birds of the sea of Deucalydon
          rejoice in the bashful yielding of the sloe to gin
          rejoice in the engraved papers in their boxes at Coutts’
          rejoice in his money out on the Baltic Exchange
          rejoice in his failure to achieve solidity.

You can’t help but hear the echo of Marx in that last line (I’m being mischievous here) – ‘Everything that is solid melts into air’ – but Duncan’s exploration of advertising as propaganda and an underpinning of Consumer Capitalism is effective and percipient.

It’s good to be reminded that Andrew Duncan is an accomplished and unusual poet as well being a prolific and perceptive critic. In both roles he is something of ‘an outsider’ but I’ve come to appreciate his work more in recent years even though I don’t always agree with or share his perceptions. If you’ve not come across his poetry before and fancy reading something challenging and different you ought to get hold of this collection pronto.


Copyright © Steve Spence, 2018