With its seemingly simple, wry humour, Abse's late collection explores beauty and mortality with a deceptively light touch
Dannie Abse's 17th collection, shortlisted for this month's TS Eliot prize, is stalked by death – deaths past, imagined and ineluctably to come. This is hardly surprising, given that the poet is now in his 90s and beset with the realities of old age – a time when "all pavements slope uphill / slow slow / towards an exit" – by a sense of time wasted in "those paperhat hours of benign frivolity" and by memories of those moments "when the long whistle blew on happiness".
Abse's brother Leo, for many years the Labour MP for Pontypool, is elegised here, as are the poet's wife and father. "The dead," Abse writes, "have many disguises"; in that final repose a dead man's face becomes "a forgery of itself" ("Last Visit of Uncle Isidore"). Immersion in art can achieve a similar, albeit more benign and temporary, transfigurative effect: people seen listening to music "become inexact representations of themselves", like the figures seen in paintings by Giorgione and Botticelli. But the beauty of art, like natural beauty and love, is a transient thing, displaced all too soon by the TV resuming "its appalling / dominance with scenes of the most debauched, / most up-to-date massacre of the innocents". ("Pre-Xmas at L'artista")
The themes of Speak, Old Parrot may be as dark and heavy as they come, but the tone, for the most part, is light; just as "light allows / the darkest shadows to be born of it", so Abse's poetic strategy has always been to wrongfoot the reader with his seemingly simple, wry humour. He is aware, of course, of the dangers this poses to his reputation. In the book's closing piece, "Gone?", he addresses the collection's titular "ventriloquist bird", which stands as a symbol for his poetic inspiration: "you liked to be / deceptive, yet never babblative enough / to employ the bald serious scholars". Earlier, in a piece dedicated to the anti-academic poet Frank O'Hara, he talks of "how those poets / who write enigmatic nonsense become famously / the darlings of the professors they most despise".
There's certainly no such enigmatic posturing here, more an abiding sense of an acceptance of failure beneath the veneer of success and a sense of action, whether medical or artistic, as a species of deception. Of the subject in "Portrait of an Old Doctor", Abse – who spent 30 years as a doctor in a London chest clinic – writes: "He had been a confidence man for the patient. / That's how it was in The Theatre of Disease". But at the final curtain there will be "no applause … for Hippocrates' art".
Such deceptions, of course, in poetry as in medicine, are only well intended. "Sunbright", one of several lovely elegies for his wife, who died in 2005, recalls a long-ago trip to Venice, conflating the figure of the beloved with the intense sunlight on the lagoon and, charmingly, owning up to its craft. It ends:
… all this is true, or vitually true.
It's only a poetry licensed lie
when I rhyme and cheat and wink
and swear I almost need to wear
(muses help me, cross my heart)
each time I think of you.
Throughout the book there is a feel for the continuing thrum of human life, that, despite all, goes on. Nowhere is this more so than in "The Summer Frustrations of Dafydd ap Gwilym", five boisterously funny versions of the 14th-century poet's work detailing his amorous misadventures with a series of inamoratas. It ends with the poet addressing Morfudd, his one-time lover, whose decision to retire into a convent has left him "moon-shot, / love-lorn, lust-locked, thumbs down" and unable to see the point of writing verse if not for her. But then, he reflects, if Morfudd's now beyond reach behind the veil, there's always Dyddgu …
There are several witty pieces set in the poet's favourite north London restaurant and a very funny one about homosexual Turkish cats. In the end, Abse's view seems to be that life's a bit like the bus journey from Llantwit Major to Bridgend and back – all the way without a single passenger, but with the tyranny of the timetable providing an unavoidable imperative to travel. The point, of course, being that what counts is the journey, not the destination: "The driver, proud of his bus, felt depressed. / Nobody. Why? It was demeaning …" Having no choice, he ploughs on "with serious celerity" past "familiar oncoming hedges" until finally: "On schedule, at the terminus of Llantwit, / the bus arrived empty, yet terrific with light."