Review of "in the coming of winter" by Frank Dullaghan, pub. Cinnamon Press 2021
This is how we live in time.
This is how quickly it passes.
“How We live In Time”
Frank Dullaghan, here on his fifth full collection, is now a grandfather and increasingly conscious of which end of his life is nearest. Not necessarily in a brooding or gloomy way; more with the intellectual curiosity of a poet who has found a new subject that repays observation. And his observation is as sharp as ever, witness the start of the poem quoted above:
I have no vacation days left, but will travel
to see my new granddaughter. I shall have to pay
the days back. We are always robbing
our future as if it were endless,
paring days off it like butter for toast.
The shift from personal to universal in that third line, and the way the phrase “I shall have to pay the days back” potentially belongs to both, happens all through the collection and is handled very deftly. There is a great deal of personal detail, particularly about parents and other relatives who have died and who, as so often when one is growing older, can seem more present than the living. But these details never exclude the reader, because Dullaghan is adept at finding the universal in the particular. “Transparency” begins with an image of a man being eased out of a job:
Already, people have begun to look through me.
I have been moved to a smaller desk that is easily passed.
Strategy and future planning meetings are happy
with my absence. I no longer know what’s going on.
But it soon becomes apparent that this really is less a description of one person’s reality than a metaphor for something at once more nebulous and more cosmic:
Most evenings now, I check my shadow for solidity.
In some lights, it lacks substance, its grey cloth
dissolving like a tissue in water. The weekly journey
to my post office box is usually futile, I have begun
to avoid mirrors.
I think it was this technique which enabled the collection to overcome a pet prejudice of mine. I freely admit I normally dislike reading poems, or for that matter fiction, about covid. I feel it has made real life dull and irritating enough without invading the imagination as well. But though covid does figure in this collection (one could hardly expect otherwise, in a collection that must have been completed in 2020 and which is so concerned with mortality), it is not in any sense “about” the virus: covid is just one aspect of a wider theme, the fragility and impermanence of human life. In “The Lists of the Dead”, the lines
We name the ailments and vulnerabilities
of our siblings and offspring,
our distant friends
could be read in a covid context but also recall the conversation of many a remembered granny. And in “The Eyam Example” this wider view enables him to skewer the too easy, and too optimistic, comparison with the famous plague village whose sacrifice we remember, but not “the enforcing barricades, the cudgels”. Will a post-covid world be one with “more compassion” and fairer wealth distribution? Probably not…
In Eyam, the rich
escaped before the lockdown was enforced. The poor,
when it was over, were mostly dead.
Dullaghan has always had a gift for coining memorable phrases that feel somehow just right – “familiar streets arrive at wrong places”, a plane “runs towards the sky”, a beginning day “warms its engine”. Just occasionally, this knack fails him, usually when he is getting worked up about something, like politics; in some of the poems about Palestine and gun culture, his language, though passionate and forceful, is less forensic and more predictable. But for most of this collection, it is fascinating to watch a skilled practitioner with words getting to grips with the most basic theme of poetry, namely mortality, and trying out ways of approaching it, like
the way endings can feel like beginnings
if you come at them from the other direction
and the end of “Crossing Over”:
maybe in the end it is the simplest thing.
Here, then not here. Over.