Chris Edgoose reviews Rescue Contraptions by Joe Duggan (tall-lighthouse, 2022)
Joe Duggan’s recent Rescue Contraptions reads, among other things, like a series of love letters to his family. Many of the poems appear to be the poet speaking to his mother, father and two younger brothers. The poetic objects switch between second and third person, but the sense of intra-family communication remains. I listed Duggan’s mother first, and the opening poem of the collection, ‘Julie Andrews’, is aimed at her (“I see you in my memory as Julie Andrews as a nurse”), but from that point on she is curiously absent from the collection as Duggan focuses on his father and his brothers. It is possible that his mother is the only living family member other than the poet himself and therefore omitted because, if these are love letters, they are mostly love letters to the dead.
And as such they are effective, and sometimes very moving – the sequences concerning the early deaths of his two brothers, and Duggan’s role in attempting to provide comfort in their later years and days, are quite heart-breaking.
Held his hand for the first time
since he was six and I was twelve
and we had to cross the Castlewellan Road.
– from The Castlewellan Road
The poet’s care-giving role reflects that of his nurse mother; and while her physical presence may not be evoked by these poems, there is a feeling throughout the collection that whether she is living or dead she too is one of the ghosts who populate the narrator-poet’s mind. In the last poem of the collection, ‘Michael’s Fridge’, he receives a call from someone living in his brother’s house in Oakland, California; the poem opens:
We get there and there’s a phone call,
and we’re all on the sofa,
and Daddy, who’s dead at this point,
says it’s from Michael,
who’s dead a couple of years.
But who are the ‘we’ here? There are ghosts, certainly, and little to suggest that Duggan is actually living with The Living, as it were. There are brief present tense references in other poems to apparently living friends (as opposed to the many and various characters who spring to life in his poem-memories) such as the two friends, one responding to ‘treatment’ and the other not, in ‘2.40 am’, but the overwhelming sense is of an aging man living alone and surviving by bringing his lost family back to life. In fact, the poems themselves are, I think, the ‘rescue contraptions’ referred to in the collection’s title, little machines working to pull the poet back from the brink of a despair that might otherwise swallow him (as well as the unlikely and ingenious pieces of work created by the likes of MacGyver and the A-Team, referenced in the lovely, touching ‘Notes from Oakland’ – in that case the metaphor is for the way the Irish American community in Oakland pull together as one to show their love for Duggan’s younger brother Michael when he falls ill).
Duggan is a humorous writer, or at least he has a streak of humour running through him which balances the darkness
Reading the review this far, you may be getting the impression that Rescue Contraptions is a depressing read. It isn’t. Duggan is a humorous writer, or at least he has a streak of humour running through him which balances the darkness. This is at its strongest in poems like ‘The original line-up’ in which he parodies his younger self, basking in the reflected glow of his lower-sixth friends who are in a band for which he acts as unofficial ‘roadie’, carrying around with unwarranted pride instruments he can’t play as he helps them set up in front of a gathering crowd:
Don’t bother me or speak to me.
I am carrying this guitar.
Can’t you see I am carrying this guitar?
I also smoke.
There are also a number of very effective moments when the personal nature of many of the poems blurs into the political, as we see glimpses of growing up in Belfast during the Troubles. In ‘Don’t be Vague’ Duggan recalls how his father once saw a subversion of an old whisky advert scrawled on the wall of a cubicle when he was getting a medical check-up for sickness benefit: Don’t be vague, ask for Haig re-hashed as the sectarian Don’t be vague, kill a taig. The irony, and the family joke, is that his father was so incensed by the graffiti that his blood pressure increased and he was able to remain on ‘the sick’.
These are the jokes of my childhood,
the little gifts my da used to survive,
and to feed us.
The high point of the collection for me is the central sequence ‘Irish for Beginners’, which, in twelve short poems, relates the poet’s developing relationship with the Irish language, from lessons at school and signs on toilet doors, to the living language on Tory Island and the Bardic School poets. In doing so Duggan highlights a nation fractured not only at a political but at a linguistic (and therefore psychic) level. He also contemplates what his fellow English-based Irish poet Fran Lock describes in these terms: “i am trying to teach myself irish. why? because i feel its lack in me. because i am not sure english can be forced to hold these feelings.” White/Other, the87press, 2022. It is this lack that Duggan turns to John Montague, Ireland’s first Chair of Poetry, to express: “Montague wrote of the tongue grafted / onto us by our landlords as the other / mutters underneath.” and which he ends ‘Irish for Beginners’ by evoking very affectingly:
When I am tired in England,
sometimes I have to repeat
what I have just said.
Tá an teanga seo I mo chorp
Ach chan a thuilleadh ar mo theanga
My tongue is in my body
But no longer on my tongue.
A little earlier in the sequence the poet refers to his almost desperate need to fill the non-Irish-language-gap in him as a ‘hunger’ that is ‘upon’ him, and he juxtaposes this hunger with ‘love’ (“I learn and use the Irish word for love, / grá. Is tú mo grá. / And I scraw and I scratch.”) The reader is tempted to make the connection here between his love for the Irish language and his, albeit unspoken, love for his family. Is the Irish language itself the rescue contraption here, the one that will save him, just as his poem-letters to and about the ghosts of his family will save him?
Duggan is a poet with a lot to say and a straightforwardly effective way of saying it
I would have willingly followed Duggan further along an extended sequence, and I would be fascinated to read more about where his exploration of Brian Merriman and the Bardic poets takes him, as touching on this ‘lack’ felt within the non-Irish-speaking Irish, especially those living in England and maintaining a difficult relationship with it, is the beginning of an analysis of the ways in which deep historical fissures emerge in contemporary cultural and political life. If Duggan chose to develop this analysis further, I could imagine the result being illuminating.
Not all of Rescue Contraptions is quite so successful, in my view; the second of the book’s six sections switches into a more overtly political and satirical mode, which feels out of place as it attempts to skewer subjects such as high prices in London and expectations placed on teachers. And I’m not convinced that a white westerner giving a first-person voice to Angolan stowaway Youssop Matada, who died after falling from the landing gear of Boeing 747, feels quite right – although the sentiment is spot on (from ‘Look Up East Sheen’).
Although the poems as ‘rescue contraptions’ don’t entirely work in this section, the concept of the personal and political coming together in poems that in some way ‘help’ – or even ‘save’ – is a strong one, and I look forward to finding where Duggan chooses to take his poetry next. He is a poet with a lot to say and a straightforwardly effective way of saying it.
Chris Edgoose is a poet and blogger at Wood Bee Poet. He lives near Cambridge in the UK, and has had work published in several magazines in print and online.
|↑1||White/Other, the87press, 2022|