The Noise of a Fly by Douglas Dunn review – shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize

Larkin’s influence is still strong in this collection, which illuminates the natural world and the coming of old age

The Hebrew for fly, zvuv, “is surely one of the most magically exact onomatopoeias in any language”, Steven Connor writes in his study of the insect, Fly. News that Douglas Dunn’s poetic muse has taken wing again, 17 years after his last collection, deserves an onomatopoeic outburst of its own of relief and delight. Slacking is hardly a trait one associates with the diligent Dunn, but the opening quatrain, “Idleness”, listens out for “The sigh of an exhausted garden-ghost. / A poem trapped in an empty fountain pen.” There are ghosts and exhaustion aplenty in The Noise of a Fly, shortlisted for next week’s TS Eliot prize, but rarely if ever does the poet find himself stuck for words.

It is almost a half a century since Dunn made his debut with the northern realism of Terry Street, but the influence of his fellow Hull librarian Philip Larkin still remains strong. Dunn is 75 (12 years older than Larkin was when he died), and his poems of ageing show all manner of convergences with the bard of Pearson Park. “Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs,” wrote Larkin. Dunn broadly agrees: “So much time wasted wanting to be remembered / Ends with desire to be forgotten.” “Gave yet another lecture. God, I’m boring,” begins “Thursday”: “Dear God, it’s true, I’m just an ancient bore.”

Unlike late Larkin (“I work all day and get half-drunk at night”), however, Dunn works all day then burns the “midnight oil”. “Leaving the Office” portrays employment as secure and reassuring, with a pension waiting at the end (younger poets may look on enviously). At this point, Larkin might wish to disoblige us with a reminder of “the only end of age”, but for Dunn at least a wizened cheerfulness keeps breaking through.

Among the most affecting poems in The Noise of a Fly is “Robert Fergusson”. Robert Burns’s “elder brother in the muse”, Fergusson (1750–74) wrote rather conventional verse in English and poems of astonishing freshness in Scots. Dunn revisits 18th-century Fife and Edinburgh, salutes Fergusson’s ribald energies and charts his descent into madness and early death (“Give me time to find my mind / Then give me time to lose it”). Dunn celebrates this most Scots-identified of makars in Scots rather than English, a choice that serves as a reminder of his own relationship to the Scottish tradition and its politics.

When Dunn published Barbarians in 1979, its angry defence of working-class culture prefigured the years of Tory rule to come, but by the time of his return to Scotland and Northlight (1988) a change had come over his work. The repatriated poet struck a classical note.

Dunn has kept a strategic distance from the more MacDiarmidite wing of Scottish poetry, which he identifies with ethnic one-upmanship, but his revisiting of this theme in “English (A Scottish Essay)” brings its own problems. After some inoffensive jousting at received pronunciation, he advises us to “call it quits” with history, “For if you don’t your Balkanize your brain / Or Irish it with history’s inhumane / Serbianisms, ethnic cleansing’s dire / Epic revenges … ” Few contemporary Scottish poets, I suspect, are at risk of plunging into ethnic nationalist fantasies, and Dunn’s rhetoric hangs his argument on a very shoogly peg indeed.

“It’s a condition of verse / That it should make life worse,” Dunn writes in “Robert Fergusson”, with admirable contrarianism. This may not be what readers are expecting from the author of Elegies, his much-praised response to his first wife’s death. But as he insists in “The Nothing But”, “Only the truth will do”, finding comfort of a sort in that recognition. “Remembering Friends Who Feared Old Age and Dementia More than Death” worries away at old age, while not avoiding the impression that the real danger is turning into a poetic old fart; thankfully a time-honoured solution lies close to hand (“Cheers! Let’s pour another cup.”)

The collection hits its stride when it introduces some countersubjects to these notes of senescent complaint. “Botanics”, “Rookery” and “Bluebottles” are finely drawn portraits of the natural world, while “An Actor Takes Up Gardening” mentions Hull the better to summon the shade not of Larkin but Andrew Marvell. Pastoral visions continue in “An Alternative Map of Scotland”, which traces the “secret geography” of a tramp in search of a comfortable bed for the night.

Perhaps the single most successful poem here, however, is “Night-Walk”, as dark a night of the soul as Dunn has ever composed. Lost in the woods at night, the poet fears he has entered a world of Scottish murder ballads, a space of “solitude surpassing solitude”. Though he finally regains the safety of his house, the poet is forced into a reckoning with the darker side of history and the fragility of his lyric distance from it, so that he hears “the lashing wind cry out my name / And the hammering rain my pride and shame”.

Among other longer poems, “Self-Portrait” stands out. Ostensibly about Rembrandt, it turns to look its author in the face: “I supervise the night, and see my truth (…) / And know myself at last for who I am.” With its poems of resilient self-knowledge and celebration, The Noise of a Fly offers civilised companionship amid the deepening shades.

• The Noise of a Fly is published by Faber. To order a copy for £12.74 (RRP £14.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Aingeal Clare

The GuardianTramp

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