Wednesday, May 17, 2017

'Summer Rain' Review - Books Ireland

Books Ireland has been a mainstay of the Irish publishing scene for many years. It is a subscription based magazine (print and digital) and is always worth the price of admission. I encourage you, therefore, to support this enterprise if you have the means to do so. You can find out all about it at: Books Ireland Magazine

I was delighted to learn that my collection Summer Rain is reviewed in the current (May/June) issue and reproduce here for those interested. I should say, it is a very thoughtful and considered piece on the collection by poet and children's writer Catherine Ann Cullen, whose own work is well worth seeking out.

For now, here's the review:


Summer Rain. Noel Duffy, Ward Wood Publishing, 87pp

"Closely observed trifles"

Duffy has studied experimental physics, and one of the pleasures of his work is the way it reflects the connections between science and poetry. This collection is a trilogy of sequences that help the reader appreciate the life of the eminent physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, the father of atomic theory, with stunning poems about stars, water and snow; and of ten individuals united by the presence of rain and human frailty. From the cover photograph of electric light on puddles to the last poem, ‘Autumn Almanac’, with its

                        water dripping
                        into the empty basin –
                        full by morning

this is a book of perpetual motion, of ripples constantly extending outwards.
Duffy explains in the preface that Boltzmann’s theories show ‘how the complexity of life (an ordered state) could arise without defying this fundamental law of entropy as he had proposed it’. The length of this preface, two and half pages, was my one quibble – a short paragraph about Boltzmann would have sufficed.
Boltzmann’s struggles with depression, with other scientists and with philosophy are foregrounded in ‘Games of Chance & Reason’, a series of eight poems, many subdivided into sections, named for the years between 1895 and 1907. The sparse narrative allows the drama of the story to unfold quietly. We observe Boltzmann’s moods, from buoyant to manic to depressed, as his theories fail to convince many of his contemporaries. In the opening poem, ‘1895’, he tells his students that, in return for their attention, trust and affection, he

            will give everything I have of myself,
            my entire way of thinking and feeling.

By ‘1905’ he is repeating this to another group but, ten years on, we feel his sense of desperation as a student dares to challenge his authority.
            Each of the ten poems in the final sequence, ‘Summer Rain’, is a monologue in the voice of a character on whom the rain impinges. But from Sophie, who gets soaked as she waits for a bus, to Gerard, the blind pianist, who reaches for the black umbrella his son tells him is ‘pink with yellow gorillas’, to Muriel, a nun who has lost her faith but prays ‘that it may wash away my sin, that I may believe in him again’, rain is not all that these characters experience in common: they also share a sense of movement, like Boltzmann’s atoms. Muriel’s anxiety for change is echoed in Sophie’s imagining how she might dare make physical contact with a woman she loves: ‘Will people stare if I reach for her hand?’ Ailish, who has just reconciled with her husband, feels ‘the pebble of what once was pass between us / beady and hard and durable’. Richard, the embalmer, presides over ‘the natural order, to pass from this state to another.’ Christine, the haematologist, declares that ‘most bloods are as they should be…’, but tries to dismiss mental images of those close to her as she examines the slides, and ‘to be as dispassionate as the lens’ stare’ when she sees that all is not well for a woman patient. Gerard, who lost his sight in a rugby game, asks ‘who can ever know anything for certain?’
            For me, it is the middle section of this book that is most satisfying. Its title, ‘Into the Recesses’, is a quote from Wordsworth’s ‘Guide to the Lakes’ (‘A lake carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable’). In a review of the ‘Guide’ in 1906, Virginia Woolf praised Wordsworth’s facility in giving us

                        these closely-observed trifles which only a very penetrating
                        eye after long search could have selected and described… all
                        through this minute and scrupulous catalogue there runs a
                        purpose which solves it into one coherent and increasingly
                        impressive picture… he sees them all as living parts of a
                        vast and exquisitely ordered system.

Woolf’s words could almost have been written about Duffy’s collection, which echoes Wordsworth especially in the middle section, with poems that reference his Lake District haunts of Rydal, Beacon Tarn and Skiddaw. Duffy’s ‘Snow Over Grasmere’, set in the place Wordsworth called home for fourteen years, typifies the beauty of this sequence. Duffy describes the snowflakes

                        dissolving in clusters on the water’s brim
                        returning to their element in a different form,
                        the singular structure of each untangling
                        into the molecules of their making, melting to
                        a common unity before forever fading within it.

This precise description has Duffy the scientist looking at snowflakes through a microscope, seeing their ‘singular structure’ and their ‘molecules’, while the ‘common unity’ echoes the snowfall as unifying force in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’.
            Duffy earns our trust as both scientist and poet in this collection. His ability to blend the two makes his poems echo long after they are read. He sees into the life of things, and allows us to look through the microscope with him.

Catherine Ann Cullen is A&L Goodbody Writer in Residence at St Joseph's School, East Wall, Dublin, and works on the Trinity College Access Programmes. Her most recent poetry collection The Other Now was published by Dedalus Press in autumn 2016.