|The Imaginary Bookshop|
Welcome to my blog for the ‘launch’ of my fourth poetry collection Street Light Amber. Obviously, I would’ve loved to have done this is a personal setting but given the nature of the times – which puts everything else in perspective, of course – I have had to improvise to make some small happening for the birthing of the Kindle edition of this collection (a print copy not being viable right now, again due to our present circumstance). I asked the poet David Butler if he might be willing to introduce the book and I’m delighted that he accepted that invitation.
David is a very talented man. He is an accomplished novelist and playwright and has been known to take to the footlights on occasion. He is also a multi-linguist and has translated the selected poems of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. Above all else though, I love his poetry which manages to achieve the high-wire act of being both highly wrought and virtuoso, while managing to remain immediate and felt. He has published two full collections, Via Crucis in 2011 and All the Barbaric Glass in 2017, which I had the great pleasure and honour to launch in the Irish Writers' Centre. Truly, both these collections reveal a deeply committed and extraordinary talent.
Naturally, I am thrilled that David returned the compliment in agreeing to launch this book for me. It was initially assumed that the launch would take the form of a bookshop event, but the very difficult events we are living through have made creating a print edition impossible, for now at least, as my publisher’s printer and distributor are closed during this period and understandably so.
However, I’m delighted that we can publish the book as a Kindle edition (links below) and while publishing a book online like this will never replicate the excitement of a launch night, I’m so happy to be able to mark this occasion in some small way. David has been a soldier and written up his launch notes at short notice and I sincerely thank him for that. I will say a little more after them, for now, I want to sincerely thank him and express my appreciation for the hard work and lucidity he brought to bear on them. So here is what he has to say:
Dating back certainly as far as his 2011 debut collection, In the Library of Lost Objects, Noel Duffy has a long-standing interest in the past – how we shape it as much as how it shapes us; how memories are lost or retrieved; how individual moments may be ‘snatched from the passionate transitory’, in Patrick Kavanagh’s memorable phrase. After two intervening collections that drew more heavily on his scientific background and interests, Duffy’s fourth collection, Street Light Amber, marks a return to this fertile territory.
The collection is framed by an evocative, identically repeated poem whose protagonist might be taken as an objective correlative for the poetic persona – a solitary figure working in the Post Office’s Department of Dead Letters who nightly undertakes his duty ‘to piece together the clues / and runes of misspelt addresses, the half-remembered / names, the scrawling handwriting,’ while, of the figure himself, ‘everything in his life is late or lost’. Like the unnamed nocturnal worker, the poet of Street Light Amber has left somewhere behind him ‘the outline of a woman’s body, a question mark / against the sheets.’
What differentiates the poet from the night-worker is that the clues and runes he must sort through and decipher relate to fragments of his own past, as memorably captured in the poem ‘Triage’. Here, the poet discharges the contents of pockets and wallet onto the kitchen table, then examines ‘the debris of a life like some hidden message, / caution to the man who seeks redemption / in the triage of lost things laid out before him.’ Among these items (note the aptness of the enjambment) is: ‘a passport booth snapshot photo of you / and me’. Indeed it is noteworthy that the majority of the poems, (I count 21 out of 33), take the form of an apostrophe to this lost love, fragments of a shared past addressed directly to ‘you’, or incorporating ‘we’. Only in ‘Snapshot’ has this directly addressed ‘you’ finally become a ‘she’, perhaps suggesting some sort of distance has finally been achieved.
Photography is a repeated trope by which the poet addresses the collection’s overriding concern with time and memory. ‘Darkroom Notes’ describes with beautiful precision the image of an old hotel ‘emerging in the red gloom of the darkroom, / the filigree of the ironwork window boxes painted over / in the double-exposure of memory’s flashbulb / and the rust of time passing.’ ‘Night Walking’ is an account of the poet’s Kinsella-like peregrinations through the sleeping city carrying a camera with which to capture ‘life stilled and recycled’; while ‘Girl in Window’ suggests how both colour and motion are ‘frozen to a moment in the monochrome film.’ Is there a parallel between a photo’s relationship to a living moment and a poem’s? (c.f. Wordsworth’s origin of poetry as emotion recollected in tranquillity). The poem ‘The Last Day of Summer’ would seem to suggest as much, beginning: ‘Life must stop for an instant / before it continues, the moment / lived a second time in the room of memory, / a ghost image in the mind.’
Noel Duffy has a talent for capturing images with photographic precision. There is ‘the smoke fluttering away / with the delicacy of silk turning / in a beam of light,’ (‘The Last Day of Summer); ‘the vaulting glass of the Victorian palm house, / the slam of humid heat that meets us as we enter,’ (‘The Botanical Gardens’); while in ‘Touch’, within a glass of mint tea, the poet describes ‘the sun brought down and contained in the liquid.’ But what if the memories, the repeated encounters with ghost images, are painful and unwanted? The unbidden past appears to haunt the poet in ‘Reflection in Darkness’ in which a sideward glance catches ‘the shadow / of my face in the mirror, the sockets sunk, the skull /and bone-house that traps and cradles the mind / in its sleeping library of half-forgotten scenes.’ These aren’t necessarily the most emotionally charged memories, for as the collection’s title poem warns, ‘the most casual things are what / ambush the mind.’ If you are looking for a manifesto for the effectiveness of art, you might do worse than take this last idea to heart.
I’m so pleased to receive David’s astute and sharply keen observations on my work. He really is one of the finest poet writing today in Ireland and I’m so honoured to have him mark the occasion of the publication of this book with such generous and perceptive remarks. He has my profound thanks and I, for one, greatly look forward to his next collection, which I understand is in the pipeline, though won’t be out in the world for a while yet. It will, no doubt, be worth the wait.
I just thought I would lead on from here by making some small remarks on Street Light Amber. The collection could also be considered as a cycle of narrative love poems albeit ones that operate rather more like a photo collage or mood-piece (as David alluded to) than an explicitly straightforward story. Given this, I really recommend you don’t just dip and skip around it. It is best served in chronology. Also, it is a short collection (though no easier to write for that) so you could read it in a single sitting, but then hopefully a second time and earn double your money’s worth from it. The poems chart and attempt to rebuild a relationship after a break of several years. Rather like Euridice returned unexpectedly from the underworld the two lovers try to give things another go against the red-brick houses, canals and Georgian houses of an unnamed city. Perhaps, in a reversal to that famous myth, the book asks the question is it love itself that will return us to the light of the cedar grove or destined to descend again to the shadowlands of that dark kingdom below it.
I sincerely hope you enjoy these poems and I would be so pleased if you might be willing to buy the Kindle edition of collection and see what you make of it. I’m very proud of this work and I can say, despite its relatively short length, that it was a book that was very hard-won by, though no less enjoyable to write for that.
To end, here are four poems to try to whet the appetite.
Noticed in the stray moment, your hand
resting by the glass of mint tea on the table,
the sun brought down and contained in the liquid,
the green of its leaves reflected on your fingers.
Nothing then to disturb the composition
as my eye discovers again the contour of your touch,
its invisible look leaving no mark on your skin
as your hand moves and you reach for the glass,
raise it to your mouth, drink again.
The Botanical Gardens
You lean down close to the blossom, inhale deeply;
the stem straight, the perfect contours of the stamen,
the tight, precise folds of containing petals. There is
a sadness in the opulent grace of such things whose
season is passing. The August sunshine suddenly
darkens, the cloud thickening to rain. I take your hand
as we run to take cover, passing beneath the creepers
that climb the arching ironwork trellis of the entrance
to the rose garden. You pull tight your yellow overcoat
and we hurriedly make our way towards the shelter
of the vaulting glass of the Victorian palm house,
the slam of humid heat that meets us as we enter,
the intense odour of sweat reminding us of ourselves.
You shake away the rain and laugh as an old couple
walk slowly past, arm in arm, carrying each other along,
like the century flower that blooms only once in its lifetime,
but endures so many seasons to continue so.
The Last Day of Summer
Life must stop for an instant
before it continues, the moment
lived a second time in the room of memory,
a ghost image in the mind.
The sunlight shifts in the curtain lace,
your face framed by the window
as you raise your cigarette to your mouth,
then exhale, the smoke fluttering away
with the delicacy of silk turning
in a beam of light, the ash straining
backwards by the weight of its own gravity,
then falling down onto your dress
without you noticing.
The cycle is complete. I look down at you, the silver
cross on your neck rising and falling as you sleep,
the blood moon’s crimson in the curtainless window
tangled in the autumn detail of bare branches.
A dog barks as if sensing the sky’s disturbance
and my own. I leave you there to my lingering mistake,
sneak quietly down the dimly lit landing
to the staircase and the hallway that leads to the kitchen,
the whiskey that waits in the cupboard,
falling again by trapdoors in every choice I make,
the promises I made to you but could not keep.
I just wish to end with a few thank yous and try not to make it sound it like an Oscar speech (you can find that in the acknowledgements in the book itself!). This collection went through many variations over several years and I want to sincerely thank Beth Phillips for always being available to discuss and critique it and to act as a sounding board and guide as I proceeded with it. Thanks also to James W. Wood for his keen interest and advice throughout and to Shauna Gilligan for her astute suggestion at a key juncture. I’d like to make a special thank you to my editor at Ward Wood Adele Ward. We have been working together for almost ten years over five books now and I’m always grateful to her for the loyalty and support, and above all the belief she has shown in my work throughout. Finally, my gratitude to Mike Wood for preparing this Kindle edition for publication and for all the other good work he does at the press.
On that note I will end. I hope you will like this collection and that it might pass a few hours in these difficult times and transport you from it for an hour or two. Unfortunately, there is no wine to be served at this ‘paperless’ launch. I wish we could have done this in person but I promise to buy you all one when the day comes!
It just leaves me to say that I hope, if you buy this collection, it will reward the investment. The Kindle edition is available from today for £4.99 at Amazon in the UK.
I thank you all for coming along to this 'virtual' launch and I hope you will all keep safe and well in the coming times.
I thank you all for coming along to this 'virtual' launch and I hope you will all keep safe and well in the coming times.