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MLF Chapter & VerseMLF Chapter & Verse

The Manchester Literature Festival Blog

Review: Sinead Morrissey & Douglas Dunn

Sahar Abbas reviews our evening with Sinead Morrissey and Douglas Dunn, hosted by Vona Groarke.

At the Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama, under the Cosmo Rodewald Theatre’s star-filled ceiling, two very special stars themselves – Sinead Morrissey and Douglas Dunn – recited poems of undeniable truth and sheer honesty from their new collections, On Balance and The Noise of a Fly. Of course, it was only fitting that our brilliantly engaging host, Vona Groarke introducing Douglas Dunn – would recite a line from Dunn’s poetry about the extraordinariness of the cosmos: “The back of my hand / With its small network of veins / Has changed to the underside of a leaf. / If water fell on me now / I think I would grow”. It is this growth which, Groarke insisted, led Dunn to bridge the gap between poets of the Movement and the contemporary poetry world.

Beginning by reading an excerpt from a sermon by John Donne, Dunn revealed to the audience that the title for his new collection originated from reading this particular sermon on the imperfectness of human beings. He spoke firstly on the importance of distractedness, and how human beings devoting themselves wholly and fully to one thing fall short, because of distractions like the noise of a fly, before reciting one of his new poems, ‘Wondrous Strange’. Taking inspiration from a scene between Hamlet and Horatio in the play Hamlet, in which both characters contemplate the wonderment with which Heaven must be filled, it is with great conviction that Dunn delivered the opening line, “Now it can almost be heard. But not quite / Almost”.

Dunn’s poem touching on the wonder of such things was mesmerizing to listen to, as when Dunn described “the scent of one who is no longer / here”. In all of its simplicity, this line struck me the hardest, as Dunn has effortlessly combined this feeling of love with loss, without having to tell us that the scent is like ‘musky smoke’ or ‘heady roses’. The line was simply real, and engaging.

‘Thursday’ was recited subsequent to an anecdote that Dunn revealed to the audience about the humdrum life of a university professor. His charming wit and dry humour came through in this poem about professors “however-ing and therefore-ing”,  not a foreign concept to a theatre hall half filled by students. These sneaky neologisms which Dunn incorporates into his writing are effective; he is able to change the entire meaning of a word by applying it to a situation which would relate most to his audience. ‘Poem for a Birthday’ also held many moments of quotidian humour which Dunn infuses throughout his poetry beautifully. The lousy conjurer who was present at his son’s birthday party was at the very least laughed at, if not laughed with, as Dunn described his act as “All thirty quids’ worth of rank incompetence”.

‘Class Photograph’ dates back to 1956, the year in which Douglas Dunn had his high school class photograph taken. The opening line is nothing short of terrific: “We were Elizabethan girls and boys, / Too young for politics, too old for toys”. The closing lines were even more terrific, “And the scarcely visible orthodoxies / All still in place, plus global urgency, / Destructive wars abroad … And yet, God bless / Democracy, dissent, and the NHS / Which underpins our civic decency”. I can write this down, but it is something entirely different having Dunn fiercely articulate these words to you. The rhythm is undeniable as is the polemical message.

As well as focusing on the topic of engineering, Morrissey’s poems in On Balance, meditate on the finer tuned and calibrated relationships between human beings: we are the engineers of our own complicated and mechanical selves. Morrissey began the second half of the night by reading her first poem from her new collection, ‘At The Moscow State Circus’. “Our kids are so bored and sugared up / they’re about to froth with tears, like soda fountains”; the sounds throughout this poem were spectacular. The mention of kids, namely Morrissey’s own children in her poems, brings a welcome and youthful take on seemingly ordinary circumstances – in ‘My Life According to You’ she sped up her voice and the narrative of the poem, taking on the voice of her six year old daughter.

Of course, it would be remiss if I were to not address Morrissey’s response in her book to Phillip Larkin’s poem, ‘Born Yesterday’. To be brief, I loved it. In fact, I think I loved it a little too much. This poem spoke volumes about female empowerment, so much so, that I could feel a certain buzz of triumph in the air where I was seated amongst my other fellow classmates, mainly girls. “You rarely mention women, / except to stress our looks / or what we cannot do, / though ‘girls’ persist / in separate, lit-up boxes”; Morrissey’s challenging and direct tone – as Vona Groarke would put it – ‘flies in the face of’ controversy. “My brilliant daughter – so far, in fact, from dull, / that radiant, incandescent / are as shadows on the landscape / after staring at the sun”. The final lines in this poem which speak about Morrissey’s daughter coincide with a similar message in Dunn’s, ‘Poem for a Birthday’ to his son: be true to who you are.

My favourite poem of the night, ‘The Mayfly’, recorded how Lilian Bland, on being told that she couldn’t join Louis Bleriot on his next flight because she was a woman, responded by designing and flying her own plane: “what sudden / lift of bones and breath / allowed you to stand up straight in mechanic’s overalls / (skirts are out of the question) and plot / your escape route into the sky?” I had to remind myself, by the end, that I was sitting in a theatre hall and not on the sidelines cheering Lilian Bland on. “You ran the finished may-fly, / may-not fly still missing its engine”, there is something very uplifting and hopeful in Morrissey’s tone in this poem, it is extremely beautiful.

Groarke wrapped up the night with a few questions of her own, asking if anger is a useful starting point in poems? To which Dunn replied, “You can’t go on being angry all your life… you mellow out when you’re older” and to which Morrissey replied, “It is quite hard to write a successfully angry poem, and it is on occasion that you can say what you want to say”. She finished by describing herself as a more “exuberant poet” than an angry one. A particularly intense question came from one audience member: “How could the response poem to Larkin be written by someone who thinks Larkin is wonderful?” Morrissey replied gracefully: “Poets aren’t black and white, and neither is what they say black and white”. Poets do not agree on everything, and neither do human beings.

Sahar Abbas is English Literature 3rd year student at the University of Manchester. This piece also appears at The Manchester Review.