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The Blind Road-Maker by Ian Duhig review – songs of the forgotten and voiceless

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A hymn to an 18th-century Yorkshire civil engineer, and to the ‘Ashtrayland’ version of modern England

As a dictionary plunderer who knows a lot about a lot of things, Ian Duhig’s eclectic enthusiasms and often laugh-out-loud wit make him poetry’s answer to Stephen Fry. Popular but complex, comic yet serious, no one could accuse his verse of being dull or predictable. “My experience of poetic ideas is that they don’t stand there waiting calmly until you’re ready to receive them,” Duhig once said, “you have to rush out and welcome them immediately.”

The presiding spirit of The Blind Road-Maker, his seventh book of poems, arrives in “The Ballad of Blind Jack Metcalf”, a hymn to the 18th-century Yorkshire civil engineer, blind from childhood, who learned to read by “feeling headstone faces”. Metcalf ends up figuring as a kind of alternative self to Duhig, having built the Leeds road on which the poet now lives. He is a man born in darkness who operates with remarkable determination and conviction, while the poet, in Duhig’s own words, “stumbles about in the light”, trying to make sense of an often chaotic world in apparently plain sight. Stood, as one poem has it, “In His Shadow”, Duhig demonstrates a refreshing and self-effacing respect for this almost folkloric figure: “Testing stones to bed his roads’ black tongues, / I heard how Jack rolled them around his mouth / ‘like new words’. But I wouldn’t know about that.”

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