In his latest eclectic collection of poems, Ian Duhig sings (and dances) for those marginalised in poetry and forgotten by history. The Blind Roadmaker takes its life-spirit from Jack Metcalf, a little known eighteenth-century road builder from Leeds — the source for the collection’s interest in making one’s way, through life and literature, in the dark. Metcalf is one anchoring presence for a collection that revels in its own inability to stay on track. Unapologetically digressive and formidably allusive at most times, Duhig leaves his reader little time for respite or reflection in a relentless journey that, Shandy-like, improvises its own path as it goes along.
At times reading like parodies of their own associative style, these are poems which nonetheless carry a rootedness in Duhig’s hometown Leeds. ‘Blockbusters’ is a quest through a varied reading list, but Duhig is insistent on Leeds as the particular setting of that internal journey. The city is not as some of us will know it, repositioned on the literary map as the mythologised ‘Ashtrayland’. Both Arthurian and deeply contemporary, this version backlashes at one of Duhig’s past reviewers who, quoted in an epigraph to ‘Blockbusters’, writes Leeds “out of the literary world”. The result is a celebration of incongruities, an injection of Romance into the city’s concrete jungles, in which “estate” puns a new, updated meaning. The grim humour of ‘The Blue Queen of Ashtrayland’ — “With no round table, they hand round / White Lightning in two-litre flasks” — does not sacrifice its subject to mockery or bathos, instead delighting in the colour that anachronism brings.
Duhig clearly enjoys the tension created by setting one text or context against another (he is fond of provocative epigraphs). As a poet, he facilitates conversations as often as he engages in them; ‘Blockbusters’, for instance, is more interested in its incongruous epigraphs than the reader. This poem, key to the overall design of The Blind Road-Maker, is emblematic of the experience of reading many of the poems: a glimpse at a mind in the process of creating, still flitting from thought to thought, not yet ready, or perhaps simply uninterested in, settling on a poetic theme.
Such eclecticism is often alienating, however, which pushes against Duhig’s populist agenda (as ‘Blockbusters’ reminds us through characteristically good wordplay, writer’s block can be defeated by trawling through commercial successes such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code). ‘The Rum District’ ends up absurdly learned in its interest in etymology and history, but comes to nothing in the final line, “melting like this poem”. The poems tread a fine line between genuinely surprising and impossibly idiosyncratic, the latter more manageable when Duhig is re-writing the canon, like the stupidly playful version of Don Juan in the mock-mock-epic ‘Canto’.
If the majority of the collection is a fool-like performance by the many-voiced Duhig — several of the poems are self-conscious dramatic monologues — some of the most impressive poems marry the theme of fluctuation with a voice that is cohesive and steadying. The speaker in ‘Give Me Your Hand’ calls for a harmonising dance of bodies and poetry’s “turning feet”, but the words are not muddied by the poem’s own sudden twists and turns, as happens elsewhere.
A notable exception is ‘The Marbled Page’, which skilfully enacts the printing process it describes through a series of metaphors that metamorphose into one another. The marbled page is “new waters” on which “a quill puns itself into a swan”, before “The swig in its beak-nib bursts / into marbled leaf, marbled tree”. Those meltings into one another bear out Duhig’s belief in the fluidity of his writing process, composing poems “never knowing where they will take you”.
The poems are ultimately at home in literature, what Duhig reminds us is the “room” of the stanza; when we are invited to dance with him in Ashtrayland, it is a call to rejoice in poetry itself over any physical place.
By Alice Troy-Donovan
The Blind Road-Maker, Ian Duhig, Pan Macmillan, 2016, £9.99