There's a fine line between comedy and tragedy, and the poetry of Paul Durcan treads it perfectly.
At DublinSwell last Friday night, wearing black trousers and a bright canary yellow jumper, he regaled us with several poems, each one more hilarious than the last, and I'd barely caught my breath before he was reading us something else.
Poetry, on the page, doesn't usually make sense to me. But hearing it read out loud, by the person who wrote it, was mesmerising.
Durcan has an expressive voice. It rises and falls with emotion, he whispers some lines, croons others, occasionally he shouts. It all adds up to a powerful performance.
Two poems stood out for me. The first, hilariously entitled The Woman Who Kept Her Breasts in the Garden, was, well, hilarious.
The second, Golden Mothers Driving West, started off as a laugh-out-loud comedy, about three elderly woman doing a runner from their nursing home in a stolen car, before it mutated into a poignant, tragic tale about the past, and, finally, death.
I've taken the liberty of reproducing the poem in full below, which I found on The Ireland Chair of Poetry website:
Golden Mothers Driving West, words by Paul Durcan
The inevitable call came from the Alzheimer’s nursing
Mummy had been sitting there in an armchair for two
In a top-storey room with two other aged ladies,
Deborah O’Donoghue and Maureen Timoney.
Three Irish orang-utans, silent, stationary.
The call was to say that between 3 and 5 a.m.
The three of them had gone missing from the room.
At first it was thought that all three had slipped
Out the window, ajar in the hot, humid night.
But, no, there were no torsos in the flowerbed.
It transpired that a car had also gone missing.
Was it thinkable they had commandeered a car?
At five in the afternoon the police called
To say that a Polish youth in a car wash in Kinnegad
Had washed and hot-waxed a car for three ladies,
All of whom were wearing golden dressing gowns –
Standard issue golden dressing gowns
Worn by all the inmates of the Alzheimer’s nursing
Why he remembered them was that he was struck
By the fact that all three ladies were laughing
For the ten minutes it took him to wash the car.
‘I am surprised,’ he stated, ‘by laughter.’
At 9 p.m. the car was sighted in Tarmonbarry
On the Roscommon side of the River Shannon,
Parked at the jetty of the Emerald Star marina.
At 9.30 p.m. a female German child was taken
To the police station at Longford by her stepfather.
The eleven-year-old had earlier told her stepfather
In the cabin of their hired six-berth river cruiser
That she had seen three ladies jump from the bridge.
Her stepfather had assumed his daughter imagined it
As she was, he told police, ‘a day-dreamer born’.
The girl repeated her story to the police:
How three small, thin, aged ladies with white hair
Had, all at once, together, jumped from the bridge,
Their dressing gowns flying behind them in the breeze.
What colours were the dressing gowns? she was asked.
‘They are wearing gold,’ she replied.
Wreathed on the weir downstream from the bridge
Police sub-aqua divers retrieved the three bodies,
One of whom, of course, was my own emaciated
Whose fingerprints were later found on the wheel of
She had been driving west, west to Westport,
Westport on the west coast of Ireland
In the County of Mayo,
Where she had grown up with her mother and sisters
In the War of Independence and the Civil War,
Driving west to Streamstown three miles outside
Where on afternoons in September in 1920,
Ignoring the roadblocks and the assassinations,
They used walk down Sunnyside by the sea’s edge,
The curlews and the oystercatchers,
The upturned black currachs drying out on the stones,
And picnic on the machair grass above the seaweed,
Under the chestnut trees turning autumn gold
And the fuchsia bleeding like troupes of crimson-tutu’d
ballerinas in the black hedgerows.
Standing over my mother’s carcass in the morgue,
A sheep’s skull on a slab,
A girl in her birth-gown blown across the sand,
I shut my eyes:
Thank you, O golden mother,
For giving me a life,
A spear of rain.
After a long life searching for a little boy who lives
down the lane
You never found him, but you never gave up;
In your afterlife nightie
You are pirouetting expectantly for the last time.
I was so taken by Paul Durcan's performance, I bought one of his books (A Snail in My Prime) the next day. He now has the dubious honour of being the author of the very first poetry book added to my personal library.
For further literary events in Ireland, visit the Dublin UNESCO City of Literature website.
I travelled to Dublin and attended this event as a guest of Tourism Ireland.