Douglas Eaglesham Dunn

(b. 1942)

Bio and Bibliography

Comments on poems


from Terry Street

The night-window

On roofs of Terry Street

A removal from Terry Street

Men of Terry Street

Love poem


The new girls

Modern Love


Land love





The year's afternoon

A European Dream





The night rattles with nightmares.

Children cry in the close-packed houses,

A man rots in his snoring.

On quiet feet, policemen test doors.

Footsteps become people under streetlamps.

Drunks return from parties,

Sounding of empty bottles and old songs.

The young women come home,

The pleasure in them deafens me.

They trot like small horses

And disappear into white beds

At the edge of the night.

All windows open, this hot night,

And the sleepless, smoking in the dark,

Making small red light at their mouths,

Count the years of their marriages.




A noite chocalha de pesadelos.

Crianças choram nas casas amontoadas,

Um homem apodrece a ressonar.

De pés silenciosos, guardas experimentam portas.

Passadas tornam-se pessoas à luz de candeeiros.

Bêbados regressam de paródias,

Soando a garrafas vazias e velhas cantiga.

As raparigas voltam para casa,

O prazer nelas ensurdece-me.

Trotam como póneis

E desaparecem por entre camas brancas

À beira da noite.

Todas as janelas se abrem na noite escaldante,

E os que não têm sono, fumando no escuro,

Fazendo pequenas luzes rubras junto à boca,

Contam os anos dos casamentos.






Television aerials, Chinese characters

In the lower sky, wave gently in the smoke.


Nest-building sparrows peck at moss,

Urban flora and fauna, soft, unscrupulous.


Rain drying on the slates shines sometimes.

A builder is repairing someone’s leaking roof,


He kneels upright to rest his back.

His trowel catches the light and becomes precious'.




Antenas de televisão, caracteres chineses

Contra o céu, abanam ao fumo suavemente.


Pardais fazendo ninho bicam musgo,

Flora e fauna urbanas, macias e sem escrúpulos.


A chuva a secar nas telhas de lousa brilha às vezes.

Um pedreiro repara um telhado que tem fendas;


Ajoelha-se, aprumado, para repousar as costas,

A luz que a trolha colhe torna-a preciosa.





On a squeaking cart, they push the usual stuff,

A mattress, bed ends, cups, carpets, chairs,

Four paperback westerns. Two whistling youths

In surplus U S Army battle-jackets

Remove their sister’s goods. Her husband

Follows, carrying on his shoulders the son

Whose mischief we are glad to see removed,

And pushing, of all things, a lawnmower.

There is no grass in Terry Street. The worms

Come up cracks in concrete yards in moonlight.

That man, I wish him well. I wish him grass.


A comment, here                    




Numa carroça a ranger, eles empurravam o costume:

Um colchão, cabeceiras de cama, chávenas, tapetes, cadeiras,

Quatro livros de cow-boys. Dois rapazes a assobiar,

Em gibões de excedentes do exército americano,

Retiram os haveres da irmã. O marido

Vem atrás, trazendo às cavalitas o filho,

Cujas travessuras vão, para nossa alegria, na mudança.

E empurrando, quem diria, um corta-relva.

Não há relvados em Terry Street. Os vermes

Surgem de fendas nos pátios de cimento, ao luar.

A esse homem desejo boa sorte. Desejo-lhe relva.




Traduções de João Ferreira Duarte, em "LEITURAS, poemas do inglês", Relógio de Água, 1993. ISBN 972-708-204-1 





They come in at night, leave in the early morning.
I hear their footsteps, the ticking of bicycle chains,
Sudden blasts of motorcycles, whimpering of vans.
Somehow I am either in bed, or the curtains are drawn.

This masculine invisibility makes gods of them,
A pantheon of boots and overalls.
But when you see them, home early from work
Or at their Sunday leisure, they are too tired

And bored to look long at comfortably.
It hurts to see their faces, too sad and too jovial.
They quicken their step at the smell of cooking,
They hold up their children and sing to them.

Douglas Dunn




I live in you, you live in me;
We are two gardens haunted by each other.
Sometimes I cannot find you there,
There is only the swing creaking, that you have just left,
Or your favourite book beside the sundial.






Dancing and drinking go on into the night
In rooms of Edwardian houses,
In flats that cads and fashionable young couples rent,
Where Saturday’s parties happen
After the pub everyone goes to has closed.

There are always the girls there no one’s seen before,
Who soon become known and their first names
Replacing the girls who ’simply just vanished’
To new jobs in London or husbands who’ve quieted down.
The new girls leave with the men who brought them

To rooms nearby in the same district, or just like it.
At dawn, three streets from their homes,
The girls leave cars with doors that slam,
Engines that sound like men’s contemptuous laughter,
As they disappear at fifty down an empty street.

Then they reach the door, and turn the key, and know
They have been listening to their own footsteps
In the silence of Sunday before the milkmen,
When the cats are coming home to eat, and water
From the bridge is heard a hundred miles away.





It is summer, and we are in a house
That is not ours, sitting at a table
Enjoying minutes of a rented silence,
The upstairs people gone. The pigeons lull
To sleep the under-tens and invalids,
The tree shakes out its shadows to the grass,
The roses rove through the wilds of my neglect.
Our lives flap, and we have no hope of better
Happiness than this, not much to show for love
But how we are, or how this evening is,
Unpeopled, silent, and where we are alive
In a domestic love, seemingly alone,
All other lives worn down to trees and sunlight,
Looking forward to a visit from the cat.




A room, unutterably feminine,
A room she dreamed, but painted by Gwen John --
I see a white-distempered attic in
Her mind, pastel, and faintly put-upon
By men, who cannot understand the light
From the window, lingering on the lace
Curtain's folds, or the disturbing woman-white
Illuminated on the mirror, almost a face.
A girl is sitting on a fragile chair
With her sad brushes and her thoughts, her hair
In tints of autumn, and her skin says, Kiss
Kiss, kiss my skin, for I am touch and sense
Brushed womanly into this eloquence,
Unclothed in paint to teach you nakedness.





We stood here in the coupledom of us.
I showed her this — a pool with leaping trout,
Split-second saints drawn in a rippled nimbus.

We heard the night-boys in the fir trees shout.
Dusk was an insect-hovered dark water,
The calling of lost children, stars coming out.

With all the feelings of a widower
Who does not live there now, I dream my place.
I go by the soft paths, alone with her.

Dusk is a listening, a whispered grace
Voiced on a bank, a time that is all ears
For the snapped twig, the strange wind on your face.

She waits at the door of the hemisphere
In her harvest dress, in the remote
Local August that is everywhere and here.

What rustles in the leaves, if it is not
What I asked for, an opening of doors
To a half-heard religious anecdote?

Monogamous swans on the darkened mirrors
Picture the private grace of man and wife
In its white poise, its sleepy portraitures.

Night is its Dog Star, its eyelet of grief
A high, lit echo of the starry sheaves.
A puff of hedge-dust loosens in the leaves.
Such love that lingers on the fields of life!

A comment, here                     





To climb these stairs again, bearing a tray,
Might be to find you pillowed with your books,
Your inventories listing gowns and frocks
As if preparing for a holiday.
Or, turning from the landing, I might find
My presence watched through your kaleidoscope,
A symmetry of husbands, each redesigned
In lovely forms of foresight, prayer and hope.
I climb these stairs a dozen times a day
And, by the open door, wait, looking in
At where you died. My hands become a tray
Offering me, my flesh, my soul, my skin.
Grief wrongs us so. I stand, and wait, and cry
For the absurd forgiveness, not knowing why.

A comment, here                   





Day by nomadic day
Our anniversaries go by,
Dates anchored in an inner sky,
To utmost ground, interior clay.
It was September blue
When I walked with you first, my love,
In Roukenglen and Kelvingrove,
Inchinnan's beech-wood avenue.
That day will still exist
Long after I have joined you where
Rings radiate the dusty air
And bangles bind each powdered wrist.
Here comes that day again.
What shall I do? Instruct me, dear,
Longanimous encourager,
Sweet soul in the athletic rain
And wife now to the weather.






Consider please this dish of ratatouille.
Neither will it invade Afghanistan
Or boycott the Olympic Games in a huff.
It likes the paintings of Raoul Dufy.
It feeds the playboy and the working-man.
It has no enemies, no, no even
/Salade Niçoise/ or phoney recipes,
Not Leonard Brezhnev, no, not Ronald Reagan.
It is the fruits of the earth, this ratatouille,
And it has many friends, including me.
Come, lovers of ratatouille, and unite.

It is a sort of dream, which coincides
With the pacific relaxations called
Preferred Reality. Men who forget
Lovingly chopped-up cloves of /ail/, who scorn
The job of slicing two good peppers thinly,
Then two large onions and six aubergines -
Those long, impassioned and imperial purples -
Which, with six courgettes, you sift with salt
And cover with a plate for one round hour;
Or men who do care to know about
The eight ripe /pommes d'amour/ their wives have need of,
Preparing ratatouille, who give no thought to
The cup of olive oil that's heated in
Their heaviest pan, or onions, fried with garlic
For five observant minutes, before they add
Aubergines, courgettes, peppers, tomatoes;
Or men who give no thought to what their wives
Are thinking as they stand besides their stoves
When seasoning is sprinkled on, before
A /bouquet garni/ is dropped in - these men
Invade Afghanistan, boycott the Games,
Call off their fixtures and prepare for war.

Cook for one hour, and then serve hot or cold
Eat it, for preference, under the sun,
But, if you are Northern, you may eat
Your ratatouille imagining Provence.
Believe me, it goes well with everything,
As love does, as peace does, as summers do
Or any other season, as a lifetime does.
Acquire, then, for yourselves, ingredients;
Prepare this stew of love, and ask for more.
Quick, before it is too late. /Bon appétit!/

 A comment, here                    






   Where can a man's imagination go

   Without insulting where a boy's once went

   Forty-approaching-fifty years ago?


   Not love. Not sex. Been there and got the grief.

   There's nothing left in that line to invent,

   Or improvise. The map on the flyleaf


   Of a book about Morocco drew me in

   To mounted gownie-men, hard-riding Rif

   Fighting the footsore French Foreign Legion


   In sketched mountains, with drawn passes, peaks,

   Oases, date palms, a walled and towered town.

   Perusing a map was one of my techniques


   For getting the hell out of the parish

   Of Inchinnan and its reductive keeks

   Into a larger world. I made a wish.


   I dropped my penny in the well of dreams,

   Into a deep, dark, distant, delayed splash.

   The world was everything that thinks and seems


   When I was twelve years old and dogging off

   Into a free mind, writing reams and reams--

   Invisible paper, invisible ink--my huff


   A truancy from self as much as school.

   "Why do you think so much of poetry, Prof?"--

   I don't. It's the obsession of a Fool


   For circumstance, an accidental cry

   Before the stocks and mocks of ridicule

   Without an answer to the question "Why?"


   Off, then, to Agadir, Fez, Marrakesh,

   To white-walled forts beneath Saharan sky,

   Tall, sizzling tagines, and heaped bowls of fresh


   Dates, oranges, the Kasbahs of Rabat,

   Tangier, and Casablanca, ancient Meknes,

   Volubilis, Sale, and Ourzazat.


   `As Time Goes By' ... No re-make's probable!

   Ah, Casablanca, there's no copycat

   Director could re-do how Bogie's skill


   Turned cynicism upside-down, said `love'

   Without the saying of it but the thrill-"Here's

   looking at you, kid,"--as if to prove


   Devotion, loyalty, above intrigue,

   And virtue something that--well, just rubs off

   From cut-price black-and-white cafe fatigue,


   Booze, smokes, tuxedos. By the final scene

   They'd overshot the budget. Some bigwig

   Demanded savings. On the silver screen


   It's all illusion anyway. They faked

   A one-dimensional getaway plane

   Built out of struts and canvas, a half-baked


   Stunt of cheap joinery, using midgets

   In long-shot--lyrical heartbreak

   Forged by dwarfs and skinflint deficits.


   I go by stamps, by the Sherifian post.

   I go by Gandon's designs, and make my visits

   To remote oases, to the farthermost


   Ramparted cities, gardens, empty coast,

   Sifted Sahara measuring the minutes,

   And fountained courtyards where I meet a ghost

   Under a palm. She says, "Let's call it quits."



The Year's Afternoon


Saturday January 18, 2003


The Guardian

As the moment of leisure grows deeper
I feel myself sink like a slow root
Into the herbaceous lordship of my place.
This is my time, my possessive, opulent
Freedom in free-fall from salaried routines,
Intrusions, the boundaryless tedium.
This is my liberty among trees and grass
When silence is the mind's imperfect ore
And a thought turns and dallies in its space
Unhindered by desire or transactions.
For three hours without history or thirst
Time is my own unpurchased and intimate
Republic of the cool wind and blue sea.
For three hours I shall be my own tutor
In the coastal hedge-school of grass furniture.
Imaginary books fly to my hand
From library trees. They are all I need.
Birdsong is a chirp of meditative silence
Rendered in fluttered boughs, and I am still,
Very still, in philosophical light.
I am all ears in my waterside aviary.
My breath is poised for truth to whisper from
Inner invisibilities and the holiness
Venturesome little birds live with always
In their instinctive comforts. I am shedding
The appetites of small poetry and open to
Whatever visits me. I am all eyes
When light moves on water and the leaves shake.
I am very still, a hedge-hidden sniper
In whose sights clarified infinity sits
Smiling at me, and my skin is alive
To thousands of brushed touches, very light
Delicate kisses of time, thought kisses,
Touches which have come out of hiding shyly
Then go back again into the far away
Surrender they came from and where they live.
Perfecting my afternoon, I am alert to
Archival fragrances that float to me
Unexplained over the world's distances.
This is my time. I am making it real.
I am getting rid of myself. This is my time.
I am free to do whatever I wish
In these hours, and I have chosen this
Liberty, which is an evanishment
To the edges of breath, a momentary
Loss of the dutiful, a destitute
Perchance, a slipping away from life's
Indignities and works into my freedom
Which is beyond all others and is me.
I am free to do as I like, and do this;
I sink like a slow root in the name of life
And in the name of what it is I do.
These are my hours of 1993.
Ears, eyes, nose, skin and taste have gone.
For a little while I shall be nothing and good.
Then other time will come back, and history.
I shall get up and leave my hiding place,
My instinctive, field-sized republic.
I shall go home, and be that other man.
I shall go to my office. I shall live
Another year longing for my hours
In the complete afternoon of sun and salt.
My empty shoes at the bedside will say to me,
'When are we taking you back? Why be patient?
You have much more, so much more, to lose.'

From New Selected Poems 1964-2000 by Douglas Dunn, published by Faber and Faber.



Review of "ELEGIES", by Douglas Dunn

            Ira Sadoff  (Colby College)

            In his 1985 book Elegies (Faber and Faber:  London, 1985), Douglas Dunn  utilizes  image, metaphor, diction and fixed meter to craft a collection of poems with considerable emotive power.  At his strongest, Dunn’s poems create moments of spiritual desolation and despondency in which reader and speaker inhabit the image and metaphor to intensify the dramatic experiences in the poem.  Dunn uses image throughout to create scenes of domestic decay and isolation reflective of the emotional and literal experience of the poem.  In “Home Again” (51) for example, Dunn employs images of decomposing fruit left by the speaker.  He writes “Autumnal aromatics, forgotten fruits... Cadaver orchard, an orphanage of pips,/ Four apples sink into a pulpy rust,”(1, 6-7).  These images do more than create the aura of decay and sterility, they also work to reinforce the sentiment of abandonment, a feeling prevalent throughout the poem but never articulated through rhetoric.  Dunn’s ability to make the images communicate the emotional status of the speaker and the situation instead of a reliance on stale abstractions demonstrate his ability to express meaning through image.  In places of abstract or metaphysical diction, the imagery supports the diction, as in “Dining”(27).  The literal narrative involves the speaker’s attempt to cook his own meals from his dead wife’s recipe, and the images of “...each kitchen-spotted page,/Each stain, each note in her neat hand a sight to spin me/ Into this grief, this kitchen pilgrimage.”(23-5).  The images mix the invasion of dirt and mess with the order of his wife, a combination that functions to spark the memory of those literal moments when his the nastiness and disorder of life invaded his wife to kill her.  The power of the imagery rests in its multifaceted ability to portray a real and inhabitable domestic scene while concurrently invoking the metaphysical experience of memory.  In his stronger poems, all the images work on emotional/evocative and physical levels that give the poems a strong literal anchor that grounds the equally compelling metaphysical or abstract emotional experiences.

            In a similar fashion, Dunn uses metaphor to create seamless transitions within the poems.  When the metaphors are strong, they produce intense and coherent shifts that maintain and usually contribute to the emotional charge of the moment.  Dunn avoids wasting lines on empty rhetoric or abstractions, allowing the poems greater continuity and maintaining the importance of each line.  In “Re-reading Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss and Other Stories” (9), Dunn uses the metaphor of a fly crushed between the pages of the story Bliss to create a sense of a real story marred by death.  The extended metaphor works not only to advance the narrative, but also allows for the transition into the resolution:  “...preparing this/ Good life; and this, this fly, verbosely buried/ in “Bliss”, one dry tear punctuating “Bliss”(14-16).  The resolution fully realizes the metaphor in its transformation from the fly splotch to the tear, and this concretizes the experience hinted at throughout the poem.  By balancing the narrative progression with the metaphoric development, Dunn easily flows into the conclusion, bringing the metaphor to a fruition foreshadowed but not overemphasized throughout the poem.  In “The Kaleidoscope” (20) the metaphor functions to shift from the literal to the metaphysical without diminishing the rhythm, flow, or intensity of the poem.  He writes:

I climb these stairs a dozen times a day

And, by that open door, wait, looking in

At where you died.  My hands become a tray

Offering me, my flesh, my soul, my skin.


          As in so many other places, here the metaphor and the diction choices contribute to the sense of sacrifice and annihilation, and of a religious need for absolution realized later in the poem.  Metaphor, both extended and particular gives Dunn the flexibility to shift and surprise in his poems, going in and out of the real while never exiting the poems’s spiritual intensity.

            The choices in diction relate intimately with the choices in meter, so I will talk about the two together.  Perhaps what makes this book so remarkable is Dunn’s ability to utilize fixed meter to reinforce or limit the experiences of the poems.  In “France” (19) diction choices immediately imbue the work with emotional implications, a masterful way to work the mood of the poem without a great deal of empty or top-heavy description.  Words like “scuttled,” “frost,” “ghost,” and “ill” contrast “play,” “nightgown’s bow,” “jouissance,” and “flowers” to create an opposition between the dreams of the speaker and his wife with the physical realities of the poem.  This use of diction demonstrates how much one well- chosen word can communicate in terms of emotional resonance and literal conflict.  The form of the poem, a sonnet with a traditional Elizabethan octet and a surprising Petrarchan sextet (efggef) reinforces the surprise of the poem, and especially affects the resolution of the poem, in which the problem posed does not receive a proper solution.  The inversion of the sonnet’s typically harmonizing or resolving conclusion makes the surprise of the ending more vivid, a technique used in a number of poems. 

            Another place where the form directly impacts the overall experience is the first part of “Anniversaries” (59).  Here the meter reinforces the mechanical feeling of days passing without lonely similarity, giving a feeling of repetitive wandering and external aimlessness while the speaker’s days focus on an internal subject of loss:  “Day by nomadic day/ Our anniversaries go by,/ Dates anchored in an inner sky” (1-3).  Again the diction works in relation to the meter, where the speaker expresses his emotional state through very charged diction choices such as “nomadic,” “dusty,” “powdered,” and “wife to the weather” while using meter to convey a rhythmic and unbreakable pattern. In “Reincarnations” (44) the extended and shifting metaphors converge with the meter to create a measured sentiment of loss that stays within its metric boundaries and thus fails to run out of control and overwhelm the poem.  Dunn’s variations on the length of the metrical feet and the rhyme scheme help contribute to the surprise and the shifting metaphors of the poem.  Dunn does an excellent job playing with meter to keep his lines interesting and purposeful while still limited, helping to avoid the danger of letting the poem run away from him. 

            The only striking weaknesses in the work occurs when the rhetorical diction feels unjustified by the imagery or breaks too sharply with the tone of the poem.  At these moments the poems become overly philosophical and fail to let the imagery, metaphor, and meter do the expressive work.  At other times abstractions function as rather abrupt transitions in poems where the dramatic tension lessens under the emotionally empty metaphysical shifts (as in “The Clear Day” (40-1)).  Still, these moments are rare in the book.  Overall, Dunn’s mastery of meter and language allow him to inflect an expressive moment with every carefully chosen word, while the meter helps keep the density of the poems from overwhelming the narrative and the multifaceted but clear emotional pictures he draws.  I feel as though I have learned a good deal in term’s of meter’s measuring and limiting function, as well as its ability to add to the dramatic tension or surprise of the poem.  Dunn has demonstrated he can employ conventional metrics while still playing with the rhyme and diction sufficiently to avoid a diminishment of the experience through predictability and falsified diction.  The meter works to force precise diction in the effort to conform with the metric rules while simultaneously advancing the emotionally charged narrative.  This is a powerful book and I feel that I have learned a lot in terms of metric and metaphoric craft with special emphasis on emotionally charged diction/images and smooth transition.

            from here


Land Love

by Douglas Dunn;

introduced by Will Eaves

In Elegies (1985), his sixth collection, the Scottish poet Douglas Dunn remembered his first wife Lesley, who died in 1981. Diagnosis, sickness, courtship retrospectively refracted and dazzled by grief, final bewilderment – these were the private wastelands Dunn chose to make public, with all the sense of living injury such a decision to write, on such a subject and so soon after the event, calls forth. There are conscious echoes of other famous laments, and in particular Hardy’s “Poems of 1912–13”, so that Elegies, and this contemplation of a night-lit lake in particular, compose multiple hauntings.

Mere memory is the poet’s companion at first, and Dunn is “alone with her” again, on the soft paths of the lake border, where a Hardyesque wind stirs. But the wind is felt in the present; it moves leaves and sails a pair of swans across the water. Now we are in the realm of real ghosts, of Shakespeare’s dreams and Dante’s shades. Dunn employs terza rima, the Dantean innovation, to hold the formal mastery and the still raw emotion in suspension, and ends his summons with a dawning exclamation.





Dead wives' society

June 2002

Which poet grieved most selflessly for the death of his wife? John Milton, Thomas Hardy, Douglas Dunn or Ted Hughes?

Kate Kellaway

I remember at a party playing a maudlin game: make up your own epitaph. It wasn't as funny as intended, although it was revealing (one man wanted his to read: "He did better than his father"). Fortunately, we are not in charge of composing our epitaphs. But memorialising others is a responsible affair-especially in poetry. I was looking at Faber's enticing new editions of modern poetry that include Douglas Dunn's Elegies and Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters, when the dead wives first came to mind. I started to think of Lesley Balfour Dunn (d.1981), Sylvia Plath (d.1963) and Emma Hardy (d.1912 )-each woman with an afterlife in poetry written by her husband. The more I thought about it, the more ambiguous this dead wives' society became.

Milton could have set them all an example. He opted for unambiguous canonisation. "On His Deceased Wife" begins: "Methought I saw my late espoused saint" and he continues: "Her face was veiled, yet to my fancied sight/Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined/So clear, as in no face with more delight./But oh! As to embrace me she inclined,/I waked, she fled, and day bought back my night." Bereft poets often renew their marriage vows in death and Mrs Milton, looking down from heaven has nothing to complain of-the lament is perfect: beautiful, exaggerated, blissfully unrevealing.

Thomas Hardy's poems written after the death of Emma are trickier. They are not about saintliness but failure. In the poems-among his best -he berates himself for not loving his wife better in their last years together. Her presence did not move him then as much as her absence does now. His reaction to Emma's death was as if to one of "life's little ironies": a love that comes too late. His emotion may not have been insincere, but he recognised its irony and dramatic force.

I don't think that, were Emma able to read his poems, she would be unreservedly gratified. She might have felt indignant at the poetic mileage her husband derived from her death, all those journeys they never took together-and now this grand literary journey in her name. And she might feel a little hurt, too, by the superior value he places on their youthful times together.

Hardy is mourning twice over, for the end of youthful romance as well as for extinction in old age. Death permits the young Emma to step forward once more in her air-blue gown. And yet, one can detect in his grief, an old habit of marital dissatisfaction, close to nagging. In several poems, he complains that her death lacked occasion; he reproaches her for her indifference, her failure to say goodbye. "The Going" begins: "Why did you give no hint that night/That quickly after the morrow's dawn,/And calmly, as if indifferent quite,/You would close your term here, up and be gone/Where I could not follow/With wing of swallow/To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!" Painful feelings-and yet the rhythm of "The Going" is the opposite of grieving paralysis, it is a vigorous excursion. The poem is enjoying itself-Hardy makes an occasion of her death where she failed to do so. And it is only now that she is gone that it is possible to bring into focus the magnificent figure who takes on a heroic, undomestic aspect: "You were she who abode/By those red-veined rocks far West,/you were the swan-necked one who rode/Along the beetling Beeny Crest."

"The look of a room on returning thence" is key to Douglas Dunn's Elegies, dedicated to his wife who died, at 37, of cancer. In "The Kaleidoscope," he writes: "I climb these stairs a dozen times a day/And, by that open door, wait, looking in/At where you died. My hands become a tray/Offering me, my flesh, my soul, my skin./Grief wrongs us so. I stand, and wait, and cry/For the absurd forgiveness, not knowing why." The domesticity of Dunn's poems is a force in itself: the reader discovers that grief is a house of rooms, some of which are imaginary. The poems are furnished with souvenirs-bronze frogs, wooden mobiles, much-used recipe books. He responds keenly both to the solace and minor outrage of objects that outlive his wife.

If Dunn's poetry were less good, one would say it was merely therapy. It never crosses the line into unseemly confidences but I found it hard to read without weeping. Dunn disarms the formlessness of grief and shapes it. "Sandra's Mobile" sobs out its last line: "On her last night,/Trying to stay awake, I saw love crowned/In tears and wooden birds and candlelight./She did not wake again. To prove our love/Each gull, each gull, each gull, turned into dove." Dunn is trying to keep his wife alive and with him by writing about her. In the last poem, "Leaving Dundee," he writes: "She spoke of what I might do 'afterwards.'/'Go, somewhere else.' I went north to Dundee./Tomorrow I won't live here any more,/Nor leave alone. My love, say you'll come with me." I cannot judge whether his poems would comfort the bereaved. I suspect his wife would have recognised herself in this album of sorrows, but it is impossible to be sure.

To imagine the wives reading the poems over their husbands' shoulders is not entirely frivolous-it is an indicator of whether the poets are playing fair. For these poems are acts of possession and the fact that they will never be read by the wives confers a freedom that can make for uncomfortable results. If Sylvia Plath were able to read Birthday Letters, the effect might be incendiary. It is in Ted Hughes' urgent poems that the peculiarity of a husband appropriating a wife's life and death becomes most apparent. Birthday Letters are driven by an energy closer to fury than grief. They are territorial poems in which Hughes retains an illusion of the private space that once existed between them (hard when Plath has become public property). At the same time they are written for a public and to set a record straight; when he addresses poems to "You" it seems a slippery conceit.

Many of Hughes's poems hinge on Sylvia's American ways. In Paris, in Spain, in Devon-everywhere her response is American and antithetical to his own. It is as if the marriage were a failure to translate from the American. In "The Rabbit Catcher," Hughes describes Sylvia's iron face behind the wheel, her dangerous driving, her failure to appreciate the English countryside as a native would (as he himself does). It is an unsettling poem. "Inaccessible/in your dybbuk fury, babies/Hurled into the car, you drove." It is not that he is getting the better part of the argument (he is hard on himself, too) but that now there is no one to slam the car door in disagreement at him, or to justify her rant about England's shabby coastline. The silence that encloses these poems is uncomfortable and sad. Hughes seems to be impersonating Plath, not reviving her.

Hughes refers to Plath's own poems as if they were the enemy. His enemy-and hers. He describes them as if they were physical, an extra body part, close to deformity yet as inevitable as an Adam's apple or a camel's hump. In "The Minotaur" they fight after she destroys one of his family heirlooms. And he wonders (vainly?) whether it was he that set her most lethal poems in motion. He angrily advises her to harness her anger in her work: "Get that shoulder under your stanzas, and we'll be away. Deep in the cave of your ear/The goblin snapped his fingers/So what had I given him? The bloody end of the skein/That unravelled your marriage,/Left your children echoing." These poems were not written out of ordinary grief-the emotional cargo is more complex. Over and over, he revisits her face, her "rubbery" African lips, her brown eyes that were all performance: determined diamonds that could get what they wanted. His description is painterly, dispassionate. In "Red" he describes their bedroom, a place that neither Hardy nor Dunn would have been able to endure: "Our room was red. A judgement chamber./Shut casket for gems. The carpet of blood/Patterned with darkenings, congealments./The curtains-ruby corduroy blood." Out of this redness, he describes the saving graces of blue: "Blue was better for you. Blue was wings." And the last line in the book, "But the jewel you lost was blue" comes as a shock because it achieves what is missing elsewhere. It grieves selflessly for her-as the best poems about dead wives should.

Kate Kellaway is literary editor of the Observer


Published: 13 May 2014


“A European Dream”

by Douglas Dunn; introduced by Andrew McCulloch



The conflict between engagement with the world and withdrawal from it – or, as the Scots poet Douglas Dunn put it, between “social responsibility” and “romantic sleep” – goes back at least as far as Horace who, after defeat at the battle of Philippi, started to write poetry in the peaceful surroundings of his Sabine farm. Closer to home, Andrew Marvell found “fair quiet” in the garden of General Fairfax, who retired to his estate at Nun Appleton in Yorkshire after refusing to take part in Cromwell’s attack on Scotland. And it was Voltaire’s Candide whose experiences led him to the conclusion that we must look after our own garden. Whether, by this, he meant that we need to retreat from the world or try and improve it, however, is left deliberately unclear. Speaking of Dunn, Sean O’Brien reminds us that “having it both ways is one of the functions of pastoral. While the poet may be miles away, nursing his pessimism or his garden, his seclusion is indicated by the large tricolour brandished from an upstairs window”.

The tension between withdrawal and engagement is at the heart of Dunn’s tenth full-length collection The Year’s Afternoon (2000) in which “A European Dream” appeared. The title poem is full of explicitly Marvellian echoes as Dunn, in the “field-sized republic” of his own garden, settles into a mood of alert meditation. But it is not synoptic comprehension to which “A European Dream” aspires so much as the existential understanding to which dreams can sometimes bring us. Stumbling through the dreadful forests of European history, the speaker’s comfortable Scottish identity – “thornproof Border tweeds”, “Scottish brogues”, “briefcase and umbrella” – is gradually torn away to leave him in his garden, on his knees, “with the sensation of tending millions of graves”. To turn over the soil is to smell again the blood by which it is inevitably soaked.

A European Dream

I dreamt I missed the bus from Łomza down to Warsaw.
It was raining, a rain that varnished skin and clothes.
I wandered past the turn for Ostrałenka, preferring
Views of thin horses in pastures by the stagnant roadsides
To thumbable cars and big trucks from Gdynia and Gdansk.
Policemen, farmers, and postmen with airmails passed me;
They paid me no attention, in my thornproof Border tweeds,
My briefcase and umbrella, as my Scottish brogues
Leathered the tarmac, a credit to Hoggs of Fife.
They might have thought me just another journalist
Pedestrian factfinding in industrial Ruritania
Instead of someone dreaming what almost happened.
Words in my mouth, as I talked to myself, were strangers
To each other. Crossroads’ traffic, changing gear in Polish,
Was language of great charm and great Copernicus,
Spoken Chopin, the passion of Slavonic eloquence.
Night fell with cushioned landings on the active forests.
Wooded nocturnes made me feel that the continent
Widened across humanity’s north-European plain
As tops of conifers twinkled in the starlight
With epic whisperings that said “Pan Tadeusz, Pan Tadeusz”.
Wolf, bear and bison staggered from the dens of species,
Hunted down, parked, tamed, zoo’d, or modernized,
Turned into jerkins or the privileged plateful.
Time, too, was walking in the night, counting the graves,
Re-paragraphing chronicles of howls and tears.
I heard a river wash its scraps of sunken armour.
Sword-shards, helmets, crankshafts, to a listening ear
Sounded as sub-aqueous and subterranean nudges
On skulls and bones and residue of hoof and steel,
Eyes and flesh, the pure substance of massed memories, melted
Into historical compost. I dreamt the darkest night
I ever knew and time was strolling beside me
Down that road at the hour of no cars and no one. Time
Felt disinclined to lend a hand and help me through.
“Feel hard and think historical” – I left the road
Out of obedience to my sturdy aphorism
With golf umbrella up and a firmly gripped briefcase
And through long, lighted windows I saw kissing of hands
At a big do beneath archaic chandeliers
As chauffeurs polished limousines by candlelight,
Their little vodkas balanced on their polished cars.
For several surreal moments I was at the soirée
Kissing the hand of this one, that one, being diplomatic,
Temporarily suave in black tie and dinner jacket
Or just as out-of-place in Border tweed (three-piece)
Among the ball-gowned and Old European tuxedo’d
Counts and Margraves, leaders, luminaries, a cardinal,
A consumptive poet, generals, celebrated courtesans,
Which is to say too little of East Prussians,
Muscovian footpads, Lithuanians and leather Scots
Pedlars and mercenaries, Swedes, Red Cavalrymen,
Ubiquitous Italian waiters and Parisian chefs
Voluble with genius and pedigree’d certification,
Greatcoated Tartar grooms and Cossack major-domos.
Then I was fighting off the tugs and rips of briars
In multiplying forests, or watching my wife
Led one way and my children the other, myself that way,
At the dummy station among the tight-leashed dogs
In the stench of cattle-truck excrement, with glimpsed timetables
Listing departures for Vienna, and 
that city, and that town,
And the grin of the officer with his hands on his hips.
Bon voyage!
 I shouted, as I ran through the forest
In the endless night, very deep with timber inwit,
Running like a tormented innocent through slumber
Twisted by European odiousness and what happened
In that neck of the woods. 
Bon voyage! I cried again
To myself and the millions as I ran on,
Umbrella ripped from my hand and my briefcase dropped
Into a gurgling drainage ditch, my “life’s work”
Bundled down to its watery rot where croaking toads live
And my suit made by Stewart and Christie of Edinburgh
Ripped into the rags of one hungering for want, torn by
Hunger for hunger and a loud curse on all comfort,
Hunger for lyrical anger, for righteous indignation,
Vituperative and lonely in the forests of hopelessness.
I woke up as a man beaten, scratched and filthy
In the torn clothes of an interior adventure
Shouting, “Shrive me more for what I haven’t committed!
Negate even my soul if I have one as I plead before
The pagan God of kindness who doesn’t exist!”
History’s wide-boys and murderers tittered and giggled,
Experts in 
mauvaise foi, forgetfulness, and shameless
Persistence in their arts of perpetuity and success.
“Goodbye”, I said to myself, parting company with
My own certainties, my body, my name, my language.
It is disagreeable, to tend your garden, on your knees,
With the sensation of tending millions of graves.


Douglas Dunn (1997)