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Christmas Day by Paul Durcan: delicate, courteous, cordial


Reader Claire McAlpine finds kindness and forgiveness in a book-length poem set on 'the feast of St Loneliness'

This book-length poem is the antithesis of traditional Christmas cheer and will appeal to those who seek an escape from the kitsch and glitz of seasonal madness or who remember spending Christmas Day alone.

Yet this illuminating work has been my comforting read for the festive season since I heard Durcan reading it aloud, returning to his 49-year-old self to recall a Christmas day he would have spent alone, were it not for the generosity of his bachelor friend Frank and the company of reawakened memories that had slumbered all year, but which now come at him in abundance, littering the pages of his book like twinkling Christmas decorations.

His inviting me out of the blue
Was a shock to the system.
I expected him to say
'If I don't see you before Christmas Day,
I'll see you after Christmas Day.'

The poem begins and ends with the biblical verse from Isaiah 62:4

No longer are you to be named 'Forsaken',
nor your land 'Abandoned',
but you shall be called 'My Delight'
and your land 'The Wedded'.

Like bookends on a shelf, the repetition of the verse creates a frame within which the poem sits, revealing in a self-mocking, humorous way, the habits of a lifetime that have brought a father-of-two to this point in his life.

He speaks of ingrained habits, like not being able to pass a church without blessing himself or to endure aircraft take-off and landings without making the sign of the cross. As he listens to Christmas Mass on the radio in the comfort of his bed, sipping his coffee and mumbling the familiar refrains, he wonders how people might spend this day in parts of the world he has visited.

Objects that lie within reach encourage his reminiscences, reminding him of his travels, his father, past lovers: they include worry beads from the Arab quarter in Jerusalem, his father's rosary beads and book, his sole inheritance from the man who "died demented, alone and palely raving". He recalls a woman from Bulgaria, others from Brazil and the South Island of New Zealand, and a nun living in Rome.

Every year I travel far away
In search of the Abominable Snowman -
That is to say, The Abominable Woman.
Why? Why the Abominable Woman?
Because she is all

That is delicate, courteous, cordial.
I have caught glimpses of her
In Jerusalem, Dunedin, Rio de Janeiro,
But only once in ten years
Have I actually met her –

We submit to the humorous, melancholic phrases that speak of being alone yet carry no sadness; they uplift in a quiet way. The poet's observations spill words onto the page and infuse in him an appreciation for the small details in life that are shared with the reader; he looks through the windows of others both physically and metaphorically, experiencing not envy but admiration.

Christmas is the Feast of St Loneliness.
I street-walk at night
Looking in the windows
Of other people's houses
Assessing their Christmas decorations,
Marking them out of ten.

While some read to forget, others read to remember - the former in search of escape, the latter seeking comfort in the familiar. It is a rare volume that can satisfy both. As someone who rarely indulges the fleeting inclination to reread, I find myself breaking my own rule for Paul Durcan, retrieving this entertaining, subversive conversation between two men from the shelf every year.

Christmas Day is a poem that has fun remembering, and carries with it an air of confession, sitting within that biblical verse denoting forgiveness. It is a gift Durcan bestows upon himself, and one from which he benefits as he narrates. It reminds us that humour, generosity and compassion are antidotes to isolation and despair and that reaching out to a friend with an invitation at this time of year can inspire exceptional results.

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