I was in Galway last week launching Tom Duddy’s ‘The Years’. But the author wasn't there.
It’s a strange and moving experience introducing a book whose author is dead. Especially when so many of the poems, with the benefit of hindsight, seem to anticipate his own demise.
Some of them, of course, were written when he knew he was dying. But others were created long before the fatal diagnosis.
Introducing the book in Ireland was wonderful. All around me were the warm accents of the land where the poems were engendered. I could hear Tom’s voice through every word, even when reading some of the work in my own Scottish/English accent.
With each month that passes, I am more persuaded of his singular talent and achievement. The melody of key phrases and lines haunts me. I wish he were still here. I wish he were here to talk and write about these poems himself, though he would hang back. He would not say much. He was ever an under-stater.
Obviously he's not here. But his voice is. I give blatant notice now that my mission is to promote this book. I want you to read it more than I want you to read this blog. It’s the benchmark. It’s the watchword.
Tom liked magic. He was a member of the Munster Society of Magicians and acted as official conjuror at parties for the children of his family – his own children, as well as nephews and nieces. He was good with cups and balls, something that will turn out to be a link with a forthcoming pamphlet by Richard Osmond (more of that very soon). But I also think, with a corner of his mind, Tom subscribed to the concept of ‘real’ magic – that belief accomplishes inexplicable transformations.
Duddy has pulled off a particular trick in his last book. It’s as though a little piece of his own intelligence is running permanently, like film on a loop, inside the lines. The volume feels alive in a peculiar way. Almost eerily alive. The phrase ‘truer of ourselves than our own /self-seeming’ echoes endlessly in my head. The contrast between how things seem and how they are underpins even the quiet act of reading. Is he doing it on purpose? How is it accomplished?
With the very best stunt, you never find out how it’s done.
I can’t stop thinking about the poem called ‘Situation Vacant’. It talks about the need, in the face of death, to have a particular person present, although that person is missing. The individual in question is the type to stand ‘a stride or two back / from the rest of us’, the type to notice tiny details others miss, the type to see brightness where life struggles to persist, the type to ‘take note’.
I think that person is Tom. He is sorely needed. He is not here. But here he is:
We needed to have with us today
someone who was part of the crowd
but who stood a stride or two back
from the rest of us, in the shadow
of the roofless chapel,
on a ridge of high ground.
We needed someone to take note
of the vestiges of snow still bright
in the sunken places where growth
is rank, half-lodged, yellow-stemmed.
We needed someone to tell a story
truer of ourselves than our own
self-seeming, truer of the place
than all measures of ordnance,
truer of the world itself than the laws
crystallising in the brooches of ice
held together by grave grass.