I dipped into my set of Douglas Dunn books once more yesterday and was reminded how much I admire a great deal of his poetry.
No matter how often I re-read him, Terry Street still stands out alongside Elegies, despite the occasional wobbles in voice that characterise so many first collections. My battered copy was printed before I was born and apparently cost more new (60p) than I paid for it second-hand, which lends it extra kudos. I particularly relish the tension involved in Dunn’s self-imposed ambivalent status as an outsider living on Terry Street. His detached observations are juxtaposed with sharp notes of personal engagement, as in “Incident in the Shop”:
“…I feel the draughts on her legs,
The nip of cheap detergent on her hands…”
Memorable lines, not Kitchen Sink, nor derivative Larkin.
Dunn’s later collections certainly contain excellent work, but his writing also seems to revel more and more in its own ever-improving standards, entering into a dialogue with itself. An exception is inevitably the outstanding Elegies, where the dialogue is of course with Dunn’s memories of Lesley. Immediacy is regained, now combined with consistently dazzling skill, studded with turns of phrase that have been with me ever since I first read them eight years ago…
“…these days of grief
before the grief..”
“…The clinic of “sympathy” and dinners…”
“…the muddle of lost tenses…”
Plus numerous others I could mention.
Since Elegies, I’ve tried and failed to engage with Dunn’s writing. I admire its excellence but cannot warm to it, as in this example from the collection Northlight…
"…Time lets its scientific minutes drop
On the Australian emptiness, a brown
Rugged geology where clocks are baked
In God’s kiln…"
Virtuosity that leaves me cold.
The aim of this post isn’t to bash the way Dunn has developed as a writer, rather to point out that the relationship between a poet and his reader can mirror that of a couple who grow apart as their tastes change. No matter what I may think of the latest work, I treasure Terry Street and Elegies, which says as much about me as it does about Douglas Dunn.
One final point – Dunn’s choice of work from Terry Street to be included in his Selected very much reflects his developing ideas. I thoroughly recommend the original collection and original running order.